Houston wins the first urban education prize for having clear goals and demonstrating dramatic student achievement
Houston Independent School District has what it takes to succeed despite large volumes of low-income and at-risk students.
It has clear and specific academic objectives.
It provides resources and support to leaders and professional development to achieve those goals.
And it regularly monitors school and student performance.
So no real wonder that in October Houston was named the country's top performing urban school district and winner of the first inaugural Broad Prize for Urban Education.
The prize was created by The Broad Foundation to recognize urban school districts that make the greatest overall improvement in student achievement as well as close achievement gaps between minorities and whites and high- and low-income students. Houston, which has nearly 206,000 students, was chosen from five urban school district finalists after careful consideration and school site visits by a 10-member selection jury. Initially, the candidate pool included 108 urban districts.
Houston will receive $500,000 for student scholarships to college and other post-secondary training. The four finalists-Atlanta Public Schools, Boston Public Schools, Garden Grove (Calif.) Unified School District, and Long Beach (Calif.) Unified School District-will each receive $125,000 in scholarships.
"Being named one of the best urban school districts in the country by the Broad Foundation is indeed an honor," says Kaye Stripling, Houston's superintendent of schools. "We work hard to serve our students and I sincerely thank the Broad Foundation and the review committee for recognizing that.
"While this is an award given to the district, it is the students who will benefit and that is the way it should be. HISD will remain committed to serving all of our students and it will stop at nothing to make sure they all succeed."
Looking for Copycats
At the announcement ceremony-which included U.S. Secretary of Education Rod Paige and senators Edward Kennedy, John Edwards and Hillary Clinton-Broad Foundation Founder Eli Broad thanked the bipartisan support from U.S. senators and representatives for their commitment to education.
"Ensuring achievement in America's urban public schools is the most important civil rights issue of the new century," Broad said. "Inner city public school children will realize their college dreams with these scholarships and our country will share in their success and prosperity as a whole."
Along with the scholarships, the five urban districts will be on display during the next year. Their successful instruction and management practices will be shared with educators nationwide so other urban schools can learn from and possibly mimic them.
Shortly after the announcement, President George W. Bush also congratulated students, parents, teachers, administrators and community leaders.
"Despite facing many challenges, HISD has shown all of us how innovative leadership, hard work and high academic standards can help ensure that no child is left behind," Bush said.
Houston, where Paige was superintendent before coming to the Department of Education, won in part because it showed gains in student achievement, particularly in reading and math at all grade levels over the last three years, officials said. For example, the percentage of elementary students reaching proficiency in reading increased by 8.3 percentage points from 1999 to 2001. The percentage of elementary students reaching proficiency in math increased by 15 points from 1999 to 2001.
"Intensifying our country's attention on education and reading through extraordinary efforts like The Broad Prize for Urban Education will ensure that school districts try harder, work better and take credit where its due," said Phyllis Hunter, consultant for Texas Statewide Reading Initiative. "Reading well and strategically is every child's civil right."
Making Measurable Gains
Houston also made gains faster than expected for Texas districts with similar poverty levels. For example, from 1999 to 2001, the elementary math improvement was almost double the average improvement rate for districts across the state with similar poverty levels. And no other finalist showed decreases in achievement gaps in as many categories as Houston, jury members said.
Houston also shows clearly defined academic objectives. For example, principals and teachers know what to teach by grade and subject and they collaborate with district leadership. Every week, elementary school teachers submit detailed lesson plans, including objectives and teaching strategies, to their respective principals. The district also rewards, intervenes, and adjusts its support to schools based on student performance. For example, a school site with low test scores will warrant a review by a targeted assistance leadership team. This team analyzes school data and determines what changes need to be made. It may include targeted staff development, grade level changes in teaching assignments, mentor teacher interventions, team teaching or peer coaching.
"There are many excellent schools across our system," Paige said. "But these excellent schools exist as islands-islands of excellence in an otherwise sea of less than excellence. ...Our goal is educating all of the children very well and this means that we've got to make sure that the system works, not certain segments of the system. The system must work better."
Angela Pascopella, email@example.com, is features editor