Educators in both Gwinnett County, pictured, and Orange County use student data to improve teaching and learning.
Gwinnett County in Georgia and Orange County in Florida are the first districts to share the award.
By Alexandra Pannoni
For the first time, two school districts have won The Broad Prize for Urban Education, a prestigious annual award. The prize is given to large, urban districts that boast strong overall student performance and success in reducing achievement gaps among low-income and minority students.
Gwinnett County Public Schools in Georgia and Orange County Public Schools in Florida were awarded the prize today.
“Both of these districts show that it’s possible to make sharp, sustained progress with a large, diverse population,” says Bruce Reed, president of The Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation, which sponsors the competition.
The districts will evenly split the $1 million prize – the largest award given in public education – and dole the money out as college scholarships for high school seniors.
The two districts share very similar demographics, Reed says. Both are diverse and among the largest districts in the country in terms of enrollment.
Gwinnett County won the 2010 Broad Prize and was a finalist for the award in 2009. Reed says the district’s stable leadership, focus on developing good teachers and principals, and commitment to challenging its students have contributed to the district’s success.
A greater percentage of low-income students, as well as black students, are reaching advanced academic levels than in other districts in Georgia
, according to The Broad Foundation.
”The two positions in the school district that really determine whether or not you are going to be successful are your teachers and your principals,” says J. Alvin Wilbanks, who has been chief executive officer and superintendent of Gwinnett County Public Schools since 1996.
He attributes the district’s success to effective educators. Gwinnett County has focused on leadership development and providing teachers with data, such as student achievement and attendance information, to improve their instruction.
The district’s high school seniors also have the highest SAT participation rate among eligible districts for The Broad Prize. Seventy-five of the largest urban school districts in the country are automatically eligible for the prize each year. [See rankings of the Best High Schools.]
First-time finalist and winner Orange County in Florida has made remarkable gains in student achievement in recent years, says Reed, of The Broad Foundation.
”We can’t afford for every school to be an individual entity because our children move in and out of our schools too regularly,” says superintendent Barbara Jenkins, on the realities of managing an urban school district.
The district has focused on centralizing curriculums and programs throughout the district, she says, so that educators spend less time catching new students up, which often actually slows them down.
Officials also try to adhere to a strategic, long-term plan created nearly five years ago, she says.
“I think you have to purposely discard practices and efforts that have not been working and get more toward what is working for your children,” she says. Like Gwinnett County, officials in Orange County place a strong emphasis on using student performance and other data to inform decisions.
The district has narrowed income and minority achievement gaps, improved college readiness and, in recent years, raised achievement among low-income middle school students, according to The Broad Foundation. [Learn why some think prospective teachers should have more rigorous testing requirements.]
The two winners of the 2014 Broad Prize were also the only two finalists for the award.
In years past, four or five districts were selected as finalists, Reed says, but the review board, which selected the finalists, was disappointed with the overall performance of the eligible districts. They decided that only these districts had done sufficiently well to become finalists.
“Both these districts show that able, aggressive leadership is important to raising student achievement,” Reed says.
Jenkins, of Orange County, notes that urban educators have the challenge of educating students of many different backgrounds.
“That’s what makes urban education so exciting,” she says. “You serve all of those children, wherever you find them, and get them all to high levels of achievement that we believe that they are capable of.”