Inside the Nation's Best Urban School District

Urban school districts have a reputation for poor performance and low morale. Yet North Carolina's Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools (CMS) is fighting to become a progressive and elite place to send your child. The hard work paid off last month, when they were awarded the 2011 Broad Prize for Education.

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charlotte-mecklenburg school district north carolina broad prize for education

CMS Takes the Prize

The Broad Prize, which has been given out since 2002, is the nation's largest education award for school districts. Its goal is to reward districts that help disadvantaged students, bring attention to successful public schools and provide other districts with a model to emulate. In winning this year's top prize, CMS earns not only pride, but also $550,000 in scholarships for its graduating seniors.

CMS beat out 74 competing districts, with eligibility determined by district size and urban location, as well as enrollment of low-income students and students of color. In addition to an analysis of publicly available data, the Broad Prize Review Board visited CMS and the other finalists for on-site scrutiny. The data reviewed are expansive, including the change in achievement gaps, graduation rates and scores on standardized exams, including Advanced Placement, the SAT and the ACT.

How They Did It

Administrators at CMS credit a simple formula for their success. They worked tirelessly on mastering data, which let them identify and reward top teachers while laying off the bottom performers. They also ensured that top teachers and administrators found their way into the schools that needed them most by offering bonuses. Finally, they focused extra attention and resources on those students with the greatest need.

The hard work paid off. Of all 75 districts considered for the award, CMS had the highest African-American participation rate for the SAT. In reading and math, CMS made strides towards narrowing the gap between students of color and their white classmates. Also, CMS was among North Carolina's top performers in improving test scores among low-income students.

Still Work To Be Done

Despite the progress, CMS still has a long way to go. Low-income students and students of color at CMS continue to lag behind their classmates in most measurable academic areas. While CMS is moving in the right direction, the award presenters acknowledged frustration with the slow pace of growth among all urban school districts they studied. Through an infusion of scholarships and national attention, the Broad Prize aims to accelerate progress.

A Bright Future

At CMS, there is hope that the Broad Prize portends good things to come. They're currently searching for a new superintendent and the positive press generated by the award may help lure more elite candidates. They've also watched what happened to Gwinnett County, Georgia, the 2010 winner; that community experienced a surge of pride and recognition for the hard work the educators were doing. The 2011 award should give those at CMS the confidence and trust from their community to keep innovating, improving and reaching for the stars.

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