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Great expectations: School system on short list for national award

LILBURN - National education experts toured Berkmar High School and Radloff Middle School on Wednesday to determine if Gwinnett County Public Schools will win a prestigious award for large urban school districts.

Georgia's largest school system is one of five districts in the country chosen as finalist for this year's Broad Prize for Urban Education, which honors school districts that have demonstrated the greatest overall performance and improvement in student achievement. The other finalists are the Aldine Independent School District in Texas, Broward County Public Schools in Florida, Long Beach Unified School District in California and Socorro Independent School District in Texas.

The winning school district, which will be announced Sept. 16 in Washington, D.C., will receive $1 million in scholarships for students graduating in 2010, said Erica Lepping, spokeswoman for The Broad Foundation. The four other school districts will each receive $250,000 in scholarships.

"We want the money," Gwinnett County Board of Education chairman Daniel Seckinger said, "but as a school board, we're way more excited about the reason we're in the running."

The five finalists were chosen from among 100 eligible school districts. A review board evaluated publicly available academic performance data to select the finalists.

"It is your results that got you here," Lepping said to district officials Wednesday.

One of the reasons Gwinnett County Public Schools was chosen as a finalist is because the district outperformed other Georgia school systems with similar populations in reading and in math at all grade levels, Lepping said.

Gwinnett has also had "incredible success" in reducing achievement gaps between both black and Hispanic students and white students and has had a significant increase in the number of students taking the SAT, ACT and Advanced Placement (AP) exams, which indicates the district holds students to higher standards, Lepping said.

Wednesday's classroom tours were part of a three-day site visit that includes interviews with district officials, principals, teachers, staff, parents and community organizations, Lepping said. The research team will write a report about the visit, and a jury of former governors, former U.S. secretaries of education, university presidents and CEOs will view the report to determine the Broad Prize winner.

The research reports from each finalist district will also be sent to other school systems to share best practices, Lepping said.

"I really appreciate the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation's concentrated effort to recognize good things going on in education ... (and how the Foundation works to) create an environment and incentives for school districts to improve," Gwinnett County Public Schools Superintendent J. Alvin Wilbanks said.

The school system has used the Results Based Evaluation System (RBES) to collect and analyze data to improve student achievement since 1997, Wilbanks said. Teachers and administrators use the data to determine how to do their jobs better.

"Unless we have quality and engaging instruction in every classroom, we won't ever get the job done in educating every student to the high level they need to be educated at," Wilbanks said.

For more information about the Broad Prize, visit www.broadprize.com.