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Just Two Districts Named Broad Prize Finalists

By guest blogger Alyssa Morones

The Broad Foundation has announced that the Gwinnett County Public Schools in Georgia and Florida's Orange County Public Schools are finalists for this year's annual Broad Prize for Urban Education, naming just two top contenders for the first time since the $1 million competition began.

Each year, 75 of the nation's largest urban school districts are considered for the prestigious prize. A review board, comprised of education researchers, policy leaders, practitioners, and executives, assesses the districts based on achievement data, with an eye toward the districts' improvement in student achievement, particularly for students from low-income families and students of color. And typically four to five districts are named as finalists for the top prize.

This year, though, the review board chose to name only two districts, based on their evaluation criteria.

"We were incredibly disappointed with the overall progress of urban school systems across the U.S.," Christopher Cross, a former U.S. assistant secretary of education and a member of the Broad Prize review board, said in a press release. "When we evaluated the most recent data, we were struck by how incremental progress has been in recent years and by how far our public schools still have to go to provide a world-class education for all children."

In an interview with Education Week, Cross went on to explain that this year, the review team decided to raise the bar, "in part because of some concern that we weren't seeing the quality of district performance that we wished to see."

As part of this decision, districts had to receive votes from a majority of the board in order to be named a finalist. 

With the prize in its 12th year, the foundation "is becoming more aware of the need to sustain improvement over time, and to be sure that is happening," said Cross. "We want to really give districts something to strive for."

He also said that greater emphasis was placed on measures of college readiness, such as graduation rates and SAT, ACT, and AP test scores. The board also typically looks at state assessment scores, districts' poverty rates, per-pupil expenditures, and district enrollment. 

According to the organization, this year's finalists demonstrated a greater percentage of African-American students who reached advanced academic levels than other districts in their states and improved college readiness. In the 169,000-student Gwinnett County, SAT participation rates and average scores increased for African-American students. In Orange County, which has nearly 190,000 students, Advanced Placement exam participation and scores increased for all students, but most notably for Hispanic juniors and seniors.

With fewer finalists, the prizes will be larger for each district than in previous years. The winner will receive $750,000 and the runner-up will receive $250,000, both in college scholarships for graduating high school seniors.

This is the first time Orange County has been named as a finalist. Gwinnett County won the Broad Prize in 2010 and was a finalist in 2009.

The winner will be announced in September by U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan.

Houston Independent School District was named as winner last year, when it was recognized for its students' academic achievement gains, its ability to increase the district graduation rate faster than its competitors, and its progress in narrowing achievement gaps for low-income and Hispanic students and improving students' college readiness, among other achievements.

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