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Miami-Dade school district wins Broad Prize, top national education award

One of the nation’s top education prizes was won by the Miami-Dade County Public Schools for its dramatic gains in achievements by black and Hispanic students and for raising academic standards across the board.

The Broad Prize for Urban Education brings national prestige to the district — and more than a half-million dollars in scholarships to Miami-Dade students graduating in 2013 who demonstrate need and show academic improvement.

The district, which has been a five-time finalist for the prize, won this time with a unanimous vote by the 11-member jury.

“Miracles are possible, even when you have to wait five years,” said Superintendent Alberto Carvalho as he accepted the award on Tuesday in New York. He and several School Board members were at the ceremony at the Museum of Modern Art, where the announcement was made.

School Board Chairwoman Perla Tabares Hantman said the prize reflects the work of teachers, the board, the superintendent and students.

“This is a long-overdue recognition of the phenomenal turnaround that we have seen in Miami-Dade County Public Schools,” she said. “It still hasn’t sunk in.”

Meanwhile, Miami-Dade school district employees erupted into cheers at the School Board auditorium in Miami, where they watched the ceremony in a live broadcast.

Sharon Watson, president of the Miami-Dade County Council of PTA/PTSAs, said the prize is not only prestigious but means cash for eligible kids: “It means such wonderful things for students to have the scholarship money available.”

And fellow council officer Joseph Gebara unfolded a homemade sign: “No Longer Susan Lucci. Go MDCPS. The Broad Prize is ours at last!!!”

The Broad (rhymes with “road”) is the largest education award in the country. It aims to combine the spirit of the Pulitzer Prize with the reward of the Nobel Prize, giving $1 million in scholarship money.

The California-based Broad Foundation started the prize in 2002 to recognize urban school districts that have shown the strongest student improvement and closed achievement gaps for poor and minority students. The biggest 75 school districts in the country are automatically considered for the prize; districts cannot apply.

Eli Broad, founder of the foundation that awards the prize, is a Detroit native who now lives in Los Angeles.

“What is encouraging about Miami-Dade is its sustainable improvement over time,” he told The Associated Press.

This year, Miami-Dade County Public Schools beat finalists Palm Beach County, as well as Corona-Norco Unified School District in Southern California and the Houston Independent School District, which was the inaugural winner of prize 10 years ago. Those schools will receive $150,000 each.

Last year, Miami-Dade and Broward school districts were finalists but lost to Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools in North Carolina. In all, Miami-Dade had been a finalist in 2006, 2007, 2008 and 2011.

U.S. Secretary Arne Duncan, in announcing the prize on Tuesday, commented, “I commend the entire Miami-Dade community for establishing a district-wide culture of results that empowers teachers and students, puts more resources into helping children in the lowest-performing schools, and is helping narrow the achievement gap.”

Specifically, Miami-Dade — the nation’s fourth-largest school district with some 345,000 students — was recognized for its successes with minority students, including:

•  A greater percentage of Hispanic and black students reaching advanced academic levels, including Advanced Placement work;

•  A large rise in graduation rates for black and Hispanic students, which climbed 14 percentage points from 2006 to 2009, according to the average of the three recognized methods;

•  More students taking the SAT exam and higher scores, as well. Between 2008 and 2011, the participation and scores rose both across the board and for black and Hispanic students. For example, the number of Hispanic students who took the exam increased 6 percentage points, and the scores rose on average 15 points.

In a panel discussion with district leaders before the announcement, Carvalho highlighted several strategies that Dade public schools have undertaken in recent years, including expanding magnet programs; a laser-like focus on data at the district, region and school levels; and a focus on struggling schools, where principals were replaced and outside groups such as City Year and Teach for America provided support.

Even with Miami-Dade’s success, Carvalho said, there’s more to do: “We have 80 percent graduation rates. How can we rest with that? We have 20 percent to go.”

During the Broad Prize competition among the finalists, statisticians with MPR Associates analyzed data from the districts. A team of experts visited schools at each district and reviewed districtwide policies believed to contribute to student gains.

Shelley Billig, vice president of RMC Research led the team that visited each finalist district. In South Florida, they talked with 300 people, including students, parents, teachers and custodians, and visited a half-dozen schools.

Billig said Miami-Dade stood out for its “astute” way of analyzing data, in which not only adults, but students look at performance data and figure out how to improve. “There’s no time in between a problem is discovered and a solution is put in place,” she said.

Billig, who led the review team last year as well, said the differences they noticed in Miami-Dade this year included an analysis to improve lower-performing middle schools, and more attention to preparing kids even at early ages, for post-secondary education and opportunities.

Information from The Associated Press was used in this report. For more education news, follow @lauraisensee on Twitter.