Gwinnett schools up for top prize

LAWRENCEVILLE -- For the second year, Gwinnett County Public Schools has been selected as a finalist for the largest education prize in the country, guaranteeing the district a minimum of $250,000 in college scholarships for its students.

Georgia's largest school system is one of five urban school districts selected as a finalist for the 2010 Broad Prize for Urban Education. The Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation also chose Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools in North Carolina, Montgomery County Public Schools in Maryland and Socorro Independent School District and Ysleta Independent School District, both of El Paso, Texas.

Gwinnett County Public Schools Superintendent J. Alvin Wilbanks said he's pleased the district has again received such prestigious recognition, but he's especially proud of the school system's employees.

"You don't get recognized by the Broad Foundation unless you've got good things going on in the classroom," Wilbanks said, adding, "All of those districts are good districts, so (the recognition is) not something we take for granted. We think we're a good district, but we'll have to put our best foot forward as we talk to them and provide access to information."

The Broad Prize, an annual $2 million award, honors urban school districts that demonstrate the greatest overall performance and improvement in student achievement while reducing achievement gaps among poor and minority students, according to a news release.

The winner of the Broad Prize, to be announced Oct. 19 in New York City, will receive $1 million in college scholarships for high school seniors who will graduate in 2011. The other four school systems will each receive $250,000 in college scholarships.

Every year, 100 of the country's largest urban school districts are automatically eligible for the Broad Prize. They cannot apply or be nominated, according to the news release.

"This marks the second consecutive year Gwinnett has been a Broad Prize finalist, which demonstrates the district's unwavering focus on strong, sustainable student achievement," said Eli Broad, founder of The Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation. "It is our hope that school districts around the country will learn from the practices Gwinnett and other finalist districts are employing that are leading to impressive academic gains."

This year's five finalists were selected by a review board of 18 prominent education researchers, policy leaders, practitioners and executives from leading universities, national education associations, think-tanks and foundations. The review board evaluated publicly available academic performance data that was compiled and analyzed by MPR Associates Inc., a leading national education research consulting firm, and then selected the five districts.

The following are among the reasons Gwinnett was chosen as a 2010 Broad Prize finalist:

* In 2009, Gwinnett outperformed other Georgia districts that serve students with similar family income levels in reading and math at all school levels, according to the Broad Prize methodology.

* In recent years, Gwinnett has narrowed the achievement gaps between both black and Hispanic students and white students in reading at all school levels and in elementary and middle school math.

* In 2009, the achievement gaps between black and white students in Gwinnett were among the smallest in the state in reading at all school levels and in elementary and middle school math.

* Between 2006 and 2009, participation rates rose for black and Hispanic students taking the SAT, ACT and Advanced Placement exams.

Of the five districts in the running for this year's prize, Socorro was also a finalist last year, and Charlotte-Mecklenburg was a finalist in 2004. Montgomery County and Ysleta are first-time finalists.

Over the next two months, teams of educational researchers and practitioners led by the education consulting company RMC Research Corp. will conduct site visits in each finalist district using a research-based rubric for district quality to gather qualitative information, interview district administrators, conduct focus groups with teachers and principals and observe classrooms. The teams will also interview parents, community leaders, school board members and union representatives.

A selection jury of prominent individuals from business, industry, education and public service will then choose the winning school district after reviewing both the performance data and the qualitative site visit reports.