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Nation’s largest school district wins top public education award


The nation’s largest school system has won the country’s top prize in public education that honors an urban district with the greatest student improvement and most success reducing achievement gaps among the poor and minorities.

The New York City school system of 1 million students was awarded the largest share of the $1 million Broad Prize for Public Education, handed out annually by The Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation. It will receive $500,000 in college scholarships for graduating high school seniors.

Eli Broad (pronounced “brode”) said in a statement that New York is “a model of successful urban school district reform.”

The four other finalist school districts each won $125,000 in scholarships. They are in Bridgeport, Conn., Long Beach, Calif., Miami-Dade County, Fla., and San Antonio.

U.S. Education Secretary Margaret Spellings joined philanthropist Broad in Washington Tuesday for the announcement.

“We’re privileged to have won,” said schools Chancellor Joel Klein, who was in Washington for the event. “Obviously we have a lot of work ahead of us and we intend to do the hard work. … At the same time, I think this is a moment to celebrate.”

A panel selected the finalists out of 100 districts, based on data compiled and analyzed by MPR Associates, Inc., a national education research consulting firm.

To choose the winner, teams visited each finalist district last spring to interview administrators, observe classrooms and conduct focus groups with teachers and parents. Those research teams also talked to community leaders and union representatives.

A nonpartisan jury of nine people from government, business, education and public service then reviewed the performance data and the information from site visits.

The Broad Foundation said New York City, with its 1,450 schools, 80,000 teachers and annual budget of $17 billion, stood out for several reasons. On reading and math in all grades in 2006, it outperformed other districts in the state that serve students at similar income levels, according to Broad methodology.

The city’s poor students and its black and Hispanic pupils also outperformed their peers in comparable districts. The student body is 39 percent Hispanic, 32 percent black, 14 percent white and 13 percent Asian.

New York was also heralded for progress it has shown in closing the achievement gap for Hispanic children in high school and elementary reading and math, compared with whites. More black and Hispanic children are also taking the SAT exam, the foundation noted.

New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg has said he most wants to be held accountable on his record in education, over anything else. In his first term, he wrestled away control of the school system, putting it under mayoral authority.

The changes and modest gains have won him national attention numerous mayors of other big cities have sought his advice on school reform, and he has been trumpeting the achievements all over the country, often sounding like a presidential candidate.

“If it can be done in New York City, it can be done anywhere,” Broad said in a statement. “The strong leadership by the mayor, the chancellor and a progressive teachers union has allowed a school system the size of New York City to dramatically improve student achievement in a relatively short period of time.”

The city’s education system is hardly perfect. While the overall graduation rate is inching upward, still roughly half of New York City high school students do not graduate in four years.

“New York City still maintains dismally low graduation rates, especially for black and Latino students, and the Department of Education has failed to engage parents,” said Public Advocate Betsy Gotbaum, a vocal critic of Bloomberg’s reforms. “If we are No. 1 in terms of achievement, it’s pretty sad news for the rest of the nation.”

Klein admits that while there has been progress, the situation is now just barely at an adequate level. An entire generation of students may pass through the system before gains reach acceptable heights, he said.

“It’s a mixed message we’ve made real progress, as have some others, but the road ahead is very long and it’s going to take the kind of leadership that Mayor Bloomberg provides,” Klein said.

The school year that began earlier this month saw a major reorganization, where the mayor eased his more centralized system and gave principals more control over their own schools. Also beginning this year, schools will be given letter grades, a system Bloomberg believes will bring more accountability.

–Associated Press

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