Montgomery schools in running for urban education prize

By Michael Birnbaum
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 2, 2010

The Montgomery County school system was named a finalist Thursday for a national education award that aims to reward urban school districts for increasing student performance and reducing achievement gaps.

The school system is among five finalists out of 100 eligible districts nationwide for the Broad Prize for Urban Education. The annual $2 million prize recognizes urban school districts "making the greatest progress in America in raising student achievement," according to the announcement.

It's another feather in the cap for the Montgomery system, which over the past decade funneled extra resources into schools with the largest numbers of low-income and English-language-learning students. Many indicators have risen accordingly, and the school system is the first in the Washington area to be so honored.

"The data speak for themselves," said Montgomery Superintendent Jerry D. Weast, adding that he was surprised and excited to learn of the accolade. "Our kids learn, our teachers teach and our leaders are leading."

The other finalists are Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools (N.C.), Gwinnett County Public Schools (outside Atlanta), Socorro Independent School District (El Paso) and Ysleta Independent School District (El Paso).

The foundation identifies eligible school systems based on size, low-income enrollment, minority enrollment and urban environment. Systems are not allowed to apply for the award.

The award's name speaks to the paradox of the Montgomery County schools, a district where minority students are the majority and poverty levels are rising steadily, but where there also are large swaths of suburban affluence and privilege.

Over the past decade, the achievement gap that has vexed educators across the country -- white and Asian students tend to outperform their black and Hispanic peers in measures such as graduation rates and test scores -- has narrowed in Montgomery in a number of indicators, including reading, Advanced Placement scores and literacy in kindergarten. Those indicators have improved for all categories of students in the county.

But problems remain. Gaps in SAT scores and graduation rates have widened slightly, for example, even though minority students in Montgomery outperform their peers nationwide. The challenges mirror those faced by urban school systems nationwide.

"I don't know what you call us," Weast said. "We're a large system. We have a rural area; we have an urban area; we have a suburban area."

Past winners of the prize include schools systems in Norfolk; Long Beach, Calif.; Houston; Boston; and New York City.

The finalist status guarantees $250,000 in scholarships for the Class of 2011, and, if the school system wins the grand prize in October, $1 million in scholarships. Broad Foundation officials said that the scholarships, which amount to $20,000 over the course of a four-year college career and $5,000 over the course of a two-year college term, are aimed not at the highest-performing students but at students who have demonstrated the greatest improvement over the course of their high school years.

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