South Texas school district wins $1 million prize for student progress

Brownsville receives the Broad Prize for Urban Education for narrowing the achievement gap for its Hispanic students.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

At the southernmost tip of Texas, a border city is showing what can happen when the whole community commits to student progress.

In short, the Brownsville Independent School District, where nearly all students come from low-income Hispanic families and where 4 in 10 are not native English speakers, has managed to make huge strides in closing the achievement gap with whites and higher-income students in Texas. It has also boosted student scores on the SAT, as well as the share of students who take the test.

The gains – and the district's template for achieving them – this year earned it the Broad Prize for Urban Education. The award, announced Tuesday, comes with $1 million in college scholarships for high school seniors who show academic progress and financial need.

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"The philosophy we have is, 'All children can learn,' ... and that can be tailored to any district," says Brownsville Superintendent Hector Gonzales. "We brought in a lot of staff development for every teacher to be able to look at [students'] strengths and weaknesses and take those students to the next level.... Teachers truly believe that the students can be very successful."

A review board of education experts chose five Broad Prize finalists from among the 100 largest US school districts that serve sizable numbers of low-income and minority students. It considered factors such as reduction of achievement gaps, performance on state tests, graduation rates, college entrance exams, and accountability measures in the federal No Child Left Behind (NCLB) law. A consultant visited the finalist districts to conduct interviews. Then a jury of business, government, and public-service leaders chose the winner.

The jury praised Brownsville for directing 85 percent of funding directly to instruction – much more than the 65 percent required in Texas.

Brownsville doesn't narrowly focus on raising standardized test scores. It offers a program for gifted students, music, art, sports, and enrichment, including a competitive chess club. But test scores have improved, partly because teachers are trained to track student progress and target individual needs.

A committee is tasked with ensuring that each English learner masters the language, and almost all elementary teachers are certified in bilingual education. By the end of third grade, 80 percent of Brownsville's students are proficient in English, and most leave English Language Learner (ELL) programs by fourth grade.

Parental support is key, too. Each school has a center where parents can learn English, computer literacy, and skills to help their children. The centers also coordinate at least 3,000 volunteers. "It takes a full partnership with the community to be able to achieve student success," Superintendent Gonzales says.

Across the US, teachers in many districts have little access to professional development, textbooks, and assessments to meet the needs of students who don't speak English upon entering school. Hispanic students have made gains on national assessments since enactment of NCLB, but overall progress has been slight.

Still, "over the last four or five years we've made more progress than we did over the past two decades" with ELL students, says Raul Gonzalez, director of legislative affairs at National Council of La Raza, a Hispanic advocacy group in Washington. It's important to provide more tools and to stick with NCLB standards, he says.

During that time, the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation in Los Angeles has been highlighting high-achieving districts. It launched the Broad prize, the largest award for school districts in the United States, in 2002. The foundation doubled the award this year to a total of $2 million for the winner and four finalist districts.

The 2008 finalists are all in the southern US and all have significant Hispanic populations: Aldine, Texas; Long Beach, Calif. (the 2003 winner); and Florida's Broward County and Miami-Dade County.

"There's something special going on in the south of Texas, along the Mexican border. The schools are really improving at a much faster rate than we thought," says jury member and former US Education Secretary Roderick Paige. People in Brownsville "have built strong support for the public school idea." That, and the commitment to excellent instruction, he says, is "a pattern that can be replicated."

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