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How one school district won prestigious prize for narrowing achievement gap

The 2011 Broad Prize for Urban Education went to Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools in North Carolina, which has narrowed the achievement gap for both African-American and Hispanic students.

By Staff writer / September 20, 2011



Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools in North Carolina took home the prestigious Broad Prize for Urban Education this year, and with it $550,000 in scholarship money for high school seniors.

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The prize, which has been awarded for the past 10 years, recognizes urban districts for strides in improving overall student achievement as well as narrowing the achievement gap for minority and low-income students.

In winning this year’s award, Charlotte-Mecklenburg, or CMS, beat out 74 other eligible districts and three other finalists: the Broward County and Miami-Dade school systems in Florida and the Ysleta Independent School District in El Paso, Texas. All four districts have been finalists before.

"Charlotte-Mecklenburg is a model for innovation in urban education," said US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, who announced the winner at a ceremony Tuesday in Washington. "It has taken on the tough work of turning around low-performing schools, created a culture of using data to improve classroom instruction, and put a laserlike focus preparing students for college and careers."

The CMS district serves about 135,000 students, 53 percent of whom qualify for free or reduced lunches. About 67 percent of its students are African-American, Hispanic, Asian, or American Indian. Among the achievements that the prize panelists highlighted, Charlotte-Mecklenburg:

• Narrowed the achievement gap between its African-American students and both district and state white students at all levels in reading and math. It also narrowed the gap between Hispanic and white students at all levels in math and for middle and high school students in reading.

• Had the highest SAT participation rate for African-American seniors (62 percent) of all 75 districts who qualified for the Broad Prize.

• Was more successful than at least 70 percent of other North Carolina districts at increasing the percentage of low-income middle and high school students who performed at the highest achievement level in reading and math.

The panelists also highlighted a number of the district’s practices, including a lauded strategic staffing initiative put in place by former superintendent Peter Gorman, who left the district in June. The initiative moves the most effective principals into chronically failing schools and allows them to bring with them top teachers, who are given financial incentives. The panelists also noted changes Mr. Gorman made to how layoffs are conducted – now based on performance as well as seniority – and how teachers are compensated, as well as the district’s openness to alternative sources for teachers and principals, including Teach for America and New Leaders for New Schools.

At the ceremony Tuesday, musician John Legend delivered the keynote address, calling education reform the “civil rights issue of our generation.” A number of members of Congress, including Sen. Lamar Alexander (R) of Tennessee, Sen. Michael Bennet (D) of Colorado, and Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D) of California, the House minority leader, emphasized both the importance of what the Broad Prize recognizes as well as the bipartisan support for many education reforms.

“We can help create a better environment for schools, but we can’t make them better from here,” said Senator Alexander in his remarks. “That’s why the spotlight Broad places on these four outstanding districts ... is so important.”

The Broad Prize, which is sponsored by the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation, is the largest award of its type. It was started in hopes of rewarding districts that make big improvements in student achievement, promoting best practices that other districts can follow, and spurring competition and creating incentives for districts to improve. Last year’s winner was the Gwinnett County Public Schools outside Atlanta.

It awards $1 million a year in total scholarship money (reduced from $2 million in the past few years to make the award more sustainable). In addition to the money CMS receives, each of the other three finalists will get $150,000 in scholarship money. The money is designed to go not to top students who probably have other scholarships available to them, but to those students with financial need who have made big improvements over their high school career.

“We started the [Broad Prize] because the public is down on urban education, and we said we’ll find districts that are doing great work and get them to share their best practices with other districts,” said Eli Broad, in an interview after the winner was announced. Still, he says, “there’s a long way to go” in education reform. “We’ve made progress, but we have to make a lot more progress, faster than we’ve done in the last 10 years.”

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