ORLANDO, Fla. (AP) — In a first for the prestigious award, districts in Florida and Georgia will split the $1 million Broad Prize — the largest education award given to U.S. public schools.
On Monday, Gwinnett County Public Schools in metro Atlanta and Orange County Public Schools in Orlando each were promised $500,000 in college scholarships for their high school seniors.
The announcement marked the first time in its 12-year history that the Broad Prize for Urban Education has gone to two districts. The winners were announced by U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan during a ceremony in New York that included a speech by former British Prime Minister Tony Blair.
The prize rewards school districts for improving achievement among disadvantaged students. Criteria include state test scores, graduation rates, performance compared with similar districts in the state, preparation of students for college, and the closing of the achievement gaps between ethnic groups and low-and-high income students.
The two winners were picked from a pool of 75 eligible districts.
In a letter from the selection jury, former Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell said the decision to pick only two finalists — instead of the usual four or five — was made because of disappointment in how urban schools are progressing; the two finalists became the winners. Other members of the selection jury were former U.S. Housing and Urban Development Secretary Henry Cisneros, former U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Donna Shalala, former U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings and former U.S. Sen. Christopher Dodd, CEO of the Motion Picture Association of America.
Jurors viewed progress in urban school districts "as incremental at best," Rendell said in the letter.
Gwinnett County Public Schools, which previously won the prize in 2010, was picked because it is "consistently one of the top performers in Georgia," Rendell said. The district has almost 170,000 students and more than 11,500 teachers. Almost a third of its students are black, and more than a quarter are Hispanic.
For some students, those scholarships may mean the difference between pursuing a college degree after high school or stopping their formal education, said Lorna Gallimore, director of assessments for Gwinnett County Schools, where educators rose from their chairs applauding when they heard the announcement via a live feed from New York.
"We recognize that all children can learn, and all parents want the same things for their children, regardless of their socioeconomic backgrounds," Gallimore said.
Orange County Public Schools was chosen because of its impressive improvement in recent years, the jury said. It has embarked on a major capital campaign, built smaller neighborhood schools and increased the number of magnet schools in the districts. The district has more than 187,000 students and 13,000 teachers. More than a third of its students are Hispanic, and more than a quarter of the student population is black.
Because of a several-second delay in audio and visual in the feed from New York, the 300-plus educators packed into an auditorium at the Orange County Public Schools building at first seemed confused about whether they had heard the announcement correctly. When they saw a graphic on the giant TV screen that it was a tie, they jumped out of their seats and cheered.
Dorina Sackman, an English-as-a-second-language teacher and Florida's Teacher of the Year, said the key to Orange County schools' improvement has been a focus on data-driven results combined with emphasizing the teacher-student relationship.
"You can have data, data, data all you want, but it's the teachers who have those relationships with their children and understand their stories and infuse that into their knowledge of putting that into their lesson so the kids can master the content," Sackman said.
The jury wrestled with whether to give the award to Gwinnett County, which already had shown sustainable gains, or Orange County, an up-and-coming district that has "galvanized the community around raising student achievement — quickly and dramatically," Rendell said.
"In the end, we decided both finalists deserved to win the 2014 Broad Prize," he said.
The prize is sponsored by a foundation run by Edythe and Eli Broad, who made his fortune in home construction and insurance.
The districts "are doing something right with leadership and laser-like focus," Broad said.
Associated Press writer Ray Henry in Suwanee, Ga., contributed to this report.
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