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San Diego Schools Miss Out On Prestigious Education Award

— The Houston Independent School District bested San Diego Unified for this year's prestigious Broad Prize. It was the second time the district, headed by former San Diego schools Superintendent Terry Grier, has won the $550,000 prize, which comes in the form of college scholarships for the district’s most improved high school students.

San Diego Unified is one of four finalist school districts for the prestigious Broad Prize for Urban Education. The honor was awarded to Houston Independent School District.

Photo caption:

Photo by Nicholas McVicker

A researchers for the Broad Foundation talks to students in Kearny High School's Digital Media and Design school during a four-day visit to evaluate San Diego schools for the Broad Prize for Urban Education on May, 22, 2013.

San Diego city schools were one of four districts in the running this year. It was the first time in the award's 12 year history that the district was among the finalists. The other districts in the running for the honor were Corona-Norco Unified School District in Riverside County and Cumberland County Schools in North Carolina.

Runner-up districts, including San Diego Unified, each receive $150,000 in college scholarships.

"I'm just thrilled that San Diego Unified is named as one of the best four school districts in America," said San Diego Unified Board of Education Vice President Kevin Beiser following the prize announcement Wednesday morning. "So that's a big win for our teachers who have worked their hearts out for our kids and the parents and the support staff who help make sure that our kids get a quality education."

The Broad Foundation, funded by philanthropists Eli and Edythe Broad, singles out four school districts each year from a pool of the country’s 75 largest school districts where at least 40 percent of the students come from low-income households. The four finalists are chosen based on how much student performance has improved, especially in closing the achievement gap between black, Latino and low-income students and their classmates.

Districts cannot apply for the award, which adds to its cache, according to Joe Johnson, interim dean of the College of Education at San Diego State.

In March, when award finalists were announced Johnson said when you look at the list of finalists and award winners from the Broad Prize’s 11-year history it has a limited membership.

"There are many large, urban districts that have never been on that list,” he said. “So this is indeed an important recognition for San Diego Unified. In order to be a finalist, you have to have generated real data about improvements in educational outcomes that are better than the increases achieved by other large, urban districts.”

The foundation recognized San Diego Unified for outperforming similar California districts in standardized test scores, narrowing the achievement gap for Hispanic and low-income pupils on state reading, math and science tests, and improving science test scores faster than the state as a whole for black, Hispanic and low-income high school students.

Researchers compared school district improvement over a four-year period, ending with the 2011-12 school year, to determine the finalists. That period was characterized by deep cuts to state funding for public schools in California.

At the time, then-Superintendent Bill Kowba, who retired in June, called the prize "the Oscars of the education world."

“I’m just thrilled for the district and for the kids and staff that it’s happened while we’ve all been working together and I’m just honored that it’s coming at a time when we’re ready to move to the tenure of Cindy Marten and I’m grateful that I can give her this springboard for academic excellence,” he said.

In May, a group of Broad researchers spent four days visiting San Diego Unified schools to evaluate the district for the final prize.

They spent the first day interviewing staff at the district's central office. All told, they talked with about 350 staff, teachers, parents and community members about how the district operates. During six school visits, they also asked lots of questions of students.

“Basically, we’re asking them what it’s like to be a student in the school district," said Shelley Billig, vice president of RMC Research Corporation, during that evaluation visit. "So we ask them about the way that the teacher teaches them, the kinds of things that they’re learning, what their experience has been in the district, what they would improve if they had the opportunity to.”

Researchers used all of this information to compare San Diego Unified to the Broad Foundation’s definition of a high-performing district.

“We’ve got 72 indicators we look at," Billig said. "They’re research-based best practices. We like to see the extent to which the district aligns its practices to what we know works in terms of closing the achievement gap and increasing all test scores.”

San Diego Unified may not have the district most inline with the Broad indicators this year - but Board Vice President Beiser isn't discouraged.

"Eli Broad himself said San Diego Unified is headed in the right direction," he said "And that's because of our strong community."

He said he's confident the district's use of data to shape student instruction and giving teachers the opportunity to collaborate and learn from colleagues will lead to further improvement.

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