It’s the Oscar or Nobel Prize of education, said San Diego Unified School District Superintendent Bill Kowba. You can’t be nominated or try to run for it, you just have to hope you get noticed.

Christie Ritter on Schools

San Diego Unified’s efforts to raise student achievement did, indeed, get it noticed by the Broad Prize for Urban Education — and now the district’s fate in the elite competition lies with a team of reviewers fanning out across six San Diego schools this week to weigh whether San Diego receives the 2013 prize.

The district is already a semi-finalist, guaranteed to receive at least $150,000 in student scholarships. It is one of four districts selected nationwide. The top district will get $550,000 in scholarships for its 2014 graduating seniors.

But what, exactly, are the Broad Prize officials looking for when it comes to who fills the top spot?

The Broad Prize is designed to reward improvements in student achievement, especially in closing the education gap that exists for poor and minority students. Seventy-five urban school districts are eligible. All have large percentages of low-income and minority students. This is the first time in the award’s 12-year history that San Diego Unified has been selected as a finalist.

The Broad Prize “celebrates moving in the right direction,” said Greg McGinity, managing director of policy for the Broad Foundation, which sponsors the prize. He said the purpose of the prize is to “ensure that every student in an urban public school has the opportunity to succeed.”

The Broad Prize visiting committee’s team leader, Shelley Billig, said reviewers are spending four days this week visiting Crawford and Kearny high schools, Challenger and Farb middle schools and Edison and Sherman elementary schools. The district selected which schools to review, but Billig said a computer randomly selects which school staff members are interviewed during the site visits. “We’ll talk to 350 people while we’re here. We get a thorough and comprehensive picture of the district,” she said.

The six schools visited are chosen based on school type and test scores: two high-performing, two moderately-performing and two low-performing schools in each district. The committee has a list of 72 indicators to look for when making their determinations.

The indicators are divided into several areas:

• Teaching and learning, which includes a review of the districts’ curriculum and instruction, assessment and professional development

• District leadership, which encompasses instructional leadership, district governance, strategic planning and performance and accountability

• Organizational structure and climate, which includes financial resources, human resources, organizational structure and processes and organizational culture

Also included is a review of the district budgets for 2008-2009, 2009-10, 2010-11 and 2011-12. The committee is tasked with determining whether the “district is financially sound, implements prudent financial planning processes, and displays strong fiscal accountability.”

The years under review were a time of economic downturn and decreasing state revenue for public education. The district dealt with the budget crisis by laying off teachers and administrators, cutting programs, increasing class sizes, and recently, approving the sale of property.

Nonetheless, Billig said the most important indicator for her committee is success in closing the achievement gap. Other factors are ACT and SAT test scores and participation rates, AP test passage rates and graduation rates. The indicators are compared with other districts with similar demographics.

Billig noted that the students who are awarded the scholarships are those who wouldn’t receive funding to attend college otherwise. The money doesn’t go to the straight-A students, she said, because they have other sources for scholarships. Instead, students with demonstrated financial need whose grades have improved are rewarded for their efforts. Broad Prize scholarships of $20,000 will be given to students planning to attend a four-year college or university, and $5,000 scholarships will go to students attending a two-year college.

The winner of the 2013 Broad Prize will be announced on Sept. 25 at the Library of Congress in Washington D.C. The three other finalists are the Corona-Norco Unified School District in Riverside County, Cumberland County Schools in North Carolina and the Houston Independent School District in Texas.

Among those educators on the Broad Prize review board, which selected the four finalists, is former San Diego Unified Superintendent Tom Payzant, now a senior lecturer at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. The selection jury that chooses the winning district is composed of leaders in government and business, including several former cabinet members and governors.

Christie Ritter is a freelance writer for Voice of San Diego, author of four books and a former newspaper reporter. She is a graduate of Clairemont High,...

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