It was sweet redemption for Wanda Bamberg, superintendent of the Aldine (Texas) Independent School District.
After having been a finalist for the Broad Prize for Urban Education for four years and having made academic progress for a decade, the Aldine ISD finally received the top $1 million prize in scholarship money for graduating seniors.
“It sure is a different feeling,” Bamberg said Wednesday, Sept. 16, just after winning the prize. “Last year, we were disappointed [we didn’t win]. One article stated that we were always the brides’ maids never the bride and another said we were the Susan Lucci of the Broad Prize. I wish I looked like Susan Lucci.
“I was hoping, of course, to win but I didn’t prepare remarks because I didn’t want to jinx it,” she said.
And indeed, she didn’t jinx it.
The announcement for the Broad Prize, which is a yearly event that honors five urban school districts nationwide making considerable academic gains while narrowing achievement gaps, was made in Washington D.C. among 350 people from education circles and the five urban districts. The remaining four finalists each took home $250,000 in scholarship money.
U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and members of Congress on Capitol Hill helped announced the winner, which took an unusual turn this year. Set up as part reality TV and part Miss America, each of the five district superintendents were called up on stage. One by one, superintendents of the Broward County (Fla.) Public Schools, Gwinnett County (Ga.) Public Schools, and Socorro (Texas) Independent School District were announced as the first, second and third finalists until Long Beach Unified School District Superintendent Christopher Steinhauser and Bamberg were the only ones standing on stage, according to Erica Lepping, spokesperson for the Broad Prize for Urban Education. When Aldine was called out as the 2009 winner, the Aldine school board members and teacher representatives linked arms and raised them above their heads.
Reflecting on the win, Bamberg didn’t know for sure her district would win as the process focuses on data and information. But it also depends on jurors who don’t have a specific formula in picking a winner. “That’s part of the power within it,” she said.
As for her belief as to why Aldine won this year, Bamberg mentioned the growth in middle school math and the narrowing of achievement gaps. “But the data wouldn’t exist if we didn’t have the people willing to work so hard for the kids,” she said. “It’s the children who truly win and those gaps wouldn’t go away if all the people—teachers, principals—were not working individually with the kids.”
Lepping added that Aldine stood out for various reasons, one being that 84 percent of the students receive free and reduced price lunch and serve a significantly large low-income population of students. The district was also a finalist for four years, which means that it was showing a decade of continuous academic gains. “A lot of districts will peak and won’t continue to improve,” she said. “And they also showed the closing of achievement gaps [in reading and math] among low income, Hispanics and African-Americans, and knocked it out of the park in all those categories.”
What was most impressive was that Aldine rose above an American phenomenon: That one can usually predict a district’s student achievement level based on family income level, particularly in the nation’s large, urban districts. “There was no statistical correlation between family income level and student achievement” in Aldine, Lepping said.
Karen Levesque, a researcher for MPR Associates, which has been doing analyses for the prize for the past three years, said they saw a similar pattern in New York City schools two years ago, but it wasn’t as strong as this. “More than 50 percent of Aldine’s highest poverty schools are performing above average for the district—that really is quite remarkable. Most schools in that situation would be below average. It suggests that there are systemwide practices that affect all students in all schools rather than on just focused efforts [in individual schools].”
Other reasons for the win include:
? In 2008, Aldine outperformed other districts in Texas that serve students with similar family incomes in reading and math at all grade levels;
? Aldine’s black students achieved higher average proficiency rates than their state counterparts in math at all school levels and in middle and high school reading;
? The district’s comprehensive curricular and instructional system sets clear, rigorous expectations for teachers and principals and provides easy access to instructional resources and student performance information.
“Aldine deserves to celebrate today,” said Eli Broad, founder of The Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation, which sponsors The Broad Prize.
School board president Viola Garcia said she was “quite thrilled” to win this year after last year’s disappointment. “We feel we contributed (as a board) by supporting the wonderful administration and the teachers and the students who worked so very hard and achieved beyond what other people thought could happen,” she said.
And the board has been part of a Perform Governance in Action initiative, which takes selective school boards across the nation and helps board members understand how to be more effective and focus more on reform work. “We really thought carefully about policies and our mission and making sure the teachers were engaged,” she said.
Bamberg said when she returns to Aldine, they will celebrate. And then she will gather the administrators and others and discuss topics mentioned in the book Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap ? and Others Don’t by Jim Collins. “We’ll have conversations about the brutal facts and what they are and how we can make improvements.”
To read an extensive profile of Superintendent Wanda Bamberg and the Aldine Independent School District, go to http://www.districtadministration.com/viewarticle.aspx?articleid=2006