* Norfolk (2005 winner): 36,724 students -- 58 percent from low-income households -- and a seven-member appointed board. (In comparison, the D.C. school system has 61,710 students -- 68 percent from low-income households -- and a nine-member, partially appointed, partially elected School Board that will become fully elected in 2008.)

Goal of reading proficiency by the end of first grade, with quarterly assessments of kindergarten through second-grade students in reading fluency, phonics, comprehension and vocabulary; computerized database to track student progress and common curriculum to ease transfers in a school system with many transient students; leadership training program in private-sector methods funded by local businesses; performance report with monthly data on each school on the system Web site.

* Aldine, Tex.: 56,292 students -- 76 percent low-income -- and a seven-member elected board.

Web-based electronic data system with assessment of all students every three weeks; common curriculum with very specific benchmarks, such as second-graders being required to identify the place value of each digit of a three-digit number after the first six weeks of school; four schools for ninth-graders to help ease high school adjustment; voluntary Saturday classes at several schools.

* Boston: 60,150 students -- 73 percent low-income -- and a seven-member appointed board.

Web-based electronic data system with quarterly assessments in all subjects and grade levels; students held back in grades 3, 6 and 9 if not proficient in math and reading after attending summer school; 12-month teacher residency program at the University of Massachusetts with tuition free if the teacher remains in the school system three years; School Leadership Institute to recruit and train principal candidates.

* New York City: 1,023,674 students -- 82 percent low-income -- in a school system that reports to the mayor, who has a 13-member Panel for Educational Policy.

Math and literacy coaches in schools; schools must have 90 minutes of literacy instruction and one hour of math each day; no promotion for third- through fifth-graders who have not mastered grade-level skills (will be extended to seventh-graders this year); bonus system to promote retention of successful principals.

* San Francisco: 57,805 students -- 62 percent low-income -- and a seven-member elected board.

Low-performing schools are given extra resources, including more teacher training, data analysis and supplies; teams of teachers test and rank instructional programs, with each school choosing which program it prefers; new principals given year-long orientation program with coaches who help them analyze their practices and set goals.

SOURCE: The Broad Foundation

In Norfolk, Ocean View Elementary School reading specialist Helene Pohlman holds up a book with help from first-grader Jesse Dotson.