Houston hailed as nation’s best urban school district; $500,000 Broad Prize awarded for reforms that boosted test scores

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

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The Houston schools were good enough to get Superintendent Rod Paige a promotion to Washington. Now they’re good enough to be called the best in the country.

The district is the first recipient of the $500,000 Broad Prize for Urban Education, which aims to recognize the best large urban school system in the nation. District officials received the award in a Washington ceremony Wednesday alongside Dr. Paige, now the U.S. secretary of education.

“We are absolutely thrilled beyond belief,” said Kaye Stripling, Houston’s superintendent since 2001. “We’re so honored that our work has been recognized.”

The prize – the largest in public education – is funded by the Broad Foundation, created in 1999 by billionaire Eli Broad. Mr. Broad is chairman of Sun America Inc., a Los Angeles-based financial services company.

“In large cities, the public is truly down on their public schools,” Mr. Broad said. “The idea of the prize is to spotlight the successes of urban districts and hopefully have their practices emulated by others.”

Houston earned the prize by doing the best job of raising test scores and closing gaps between the performance of well-off white students and poor minority students.

“What’s most impressive is that this movement is real,” said James McSwain, principal of Houston’s Lamar High School. “These are real results. We’re seeing kids who have many obstacles in their way making it to graduation and performing well. I’m seeing better-prepared students coming into high school than we used to. It really is a success story.”

The Houston reform program began in the early 1990s and gained speed with Dr. Paige’s appointment as superintendent in 1994. Some of the reforms that Houston officials credited for their successes:

* Removing politics from the school board. “Several years ago, our board decided to depoliticize the way they operated and let the educators run the district,” said Dr. McSwain, a former president of the Texas Association of Secondary School Principals. “They avoid the finger-pointing. They let the schools be managed professionally.”

* Tougher promotion standards. “Very early on, we decided we didn’t want to push kids along to the next grade if they weren’t ready,” Dr. Stripling said. “We make certain that all of our kids can read by the start of second grade.” They’re better prepared for later success with a stronger early foundation, she said.

* Using data. Schools analyze test scores to identify weak teachers or where students are struggling. Principals then have a better idea where to target resources.

* Decentralizing authority. “We’ve tried to decentralize not only the funding but also the authority,” Dr. Stripling said. “We let the people closest to the situation make the decisions on how to solve a problem.” School-based teams handle decisions that, in some other districts, are handled by the superintendent or board of trustees.

* Keeping schools highly accountable. With greater authority comes greater responsibility. Principals in Houston are given annual goals to meet by the superintendent, in everything from standardized test scores to the dropout rate. Their contracts are signed by the superintendent, not the school board, so weak performers can be removed with relative ease.

“Each year, it’s ‘Whatever you did last year, that’s great, that’s wonderful – now do better,'” Dr. McSwain said.

Dr. Stripling, who has worked in Houston schools since 1964, said the district’s improved reputation has led to increased community support.

“In the last three years, we’ve seen such a dramatic increase,” she said. “It’s nice to see a city that truly supports its public schools.”

Adrienne Moreno, Lamar’s student body president, agreed: “We’ve got so many supporters now. Everyone’s connected and tied together for the schools.”

The selection process for the Broad (rhymes with road) prize began in the spring, when about 100 districts across the country were named as potential candidates, including Dallas, Fort Worth and Garland.

That group was narrowed to five: Houston, Atlanta, Boston, and Long Beach and Garden Grove, Calif. Each district was visited by Broad Foundation representatives.

The winner was chosen by an all-star jury, including former San Antonio Mayor Henry Cisneros, Children’s Defense Fund president Marian Wright Edelman, two former secretaries of education and two governors.

Aside from the honor, Houston schools will also receive an influx of cash. The $500,000 prize is to be used for college scholarships for this year’s Houston seniors, such as Miss Moreno, who hopes to study international business at Boston University. The other four finalist districts will each receive $125,000 in scholarship money, putting the total prize commitment at $1 million.

The prize, which is to be given annually, had a Texas flavor even before its winner was announced. Dallas lawyer Tom Luce serves as the prize’s managing director. Data for the selection process was gathered by the Austin-based National Center for Educational Accountability. Donald McAdams, a former Houston school board president and the district’s pre-eminent evangelist, leads the Broad Institute for School Boards, a related project.

While the prize is privately funded, it has been promoted by several federal education leaders. Eight senators and 10 congressional representatives were at Wednesday’s ceremony.