The Broad Prize for Urban Education has been awarded to two school districts for the first time.
The prize, awarded to urban school districts that show high student success rates and a reduction in the achievement gaps among low-income and minority students, was given to Gwinnett County Public Schools in Georgia and Orange County Public Schools in Florida.
"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 each be awarded one-half of the $1 million prize, which will be awarded in scholarship funds for graduating seniors. The prize is the largest offered in public education.
Finalists for the prize are chosen based on state test scores, graduation rates, student performance in comparison with other similar districts in the state, college readiness, and the closing of the achievement gap among low-income and minority students.
"We were impressed with Gwinnett County's steady, sustainable gains and with Orange County's urgency and commitment to improve student achievement quickly," former Pennsylvania Gov. Edward G. Rendell, a member of the selection jury, said in a statement. "In the end, we decided that both finalists deserved to win the 2014 Broad Prize."
Both districts awarded are among those with the highest enrollment in the nation and carry a diverse student body.
Gwinnett County was a finalist for the award in 2009 and won in 2010. According to Reed, the district shows stable leadership, a strong commitment to the development of teachers and principals, and is constantly challenging its students, which can be seen in the high success rates of its low-income and black students, who are reaching higher academic levels than any other district in the state.
The district also boasts the highest SAT participation rates of all the districts:
"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.
Wilbanks continued to say that he believes effective educators are to be thanked for the district's success.
Orange County became a recipient for its large strides in student achievement over the past few years.
"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 put much of its focus into offering a centralized curriculum throughout the entire district so teachers are not constantly playing catch-up with new students, which can actually slow them down in the long run.
The district has also lessened the achievement gap among low-income and minority students and strengthened college readiness across all students.
The two winning districts this year were also the only two finalists for the prize. Typically there are four or five finalists, but the selection jury was not happy with the overall performance of other eligible districts.
"Both these districts show that able, aggressive leadership is important to raising student achievement," Reed says.
The Broad Prize is awarded to one of the 75 largest urban school districts in the nation each year.