Year after year, The Broad Prize selection jury wrestles with whether to reward an urban school system that has compelling improvement or impressive performance. In 2014, the first year with only two finalists because the review board panel that selects the contenders was underwhelmed with the field, the selection jury’s struggle was even more pronounced. Georgia’s Gwinnett County—a previous Broad Prize winner in 2010 and a finalist in 2009—had sustained strong performance over several years. Orange County Public Schools in Orlando, Florida was a first-time Broad Prize finalist and had demonstrated rapid academic gains in just a few years—no easy feat for a large urban district. Both school systems had relatively similar demographics—well over 100,000 students, roughly split between African-American, Hispanic and white, with more than 50 percent coming from low-income families. And both districts had made progress particularly with their students of color and their low-income students.
The strong performer was a model for any American district that had achieved a high level of academic success but needed to sustain it. The strong improver was a model for any district looking to support its students to higher levels right away rather than progress steadily over years of effort.
Ultimately, the jury decided that both deserved to win The Broad Prize. Gwinnett County Public Schools—the strong performer—benefited from years of stable leadership since 1996 under superintendent J. Alvin Wilbanks, and a school board where the tenure ranged from one to four decades. Orange County Public Schools—the strong improver—had a relatively new superintendent in Barbara Jenkins, but one who had learned the ropes as deputy to her predecessor and who brought renewed energy and focus to the role.
For the superintendents, the shared award was welcome—and a relief. As Jenkins said after the prize was announced, “Thank God it’s over.” Wilbanks added, “Orange County is a great district. And we think we’re a pretty great district as well.”
Orange County Public Schools
“At a school, I want to see a welcoming environment that the children are happy to be part of. I want to see student work displayed. I want to see things about college and career displayed—for children as young as elementary school. I want them to see themselves as college and career candidates in the future. I’m looking for that vibe. In the classroom I want to see students engaged in learning. Not just sitting and listening, but engaged, working in groups, engaged in problem-solving, in higher-order thinking, things we believe children are capable of if we give them those challenges. I also want to see a team that’s happy to be there, from the custodian to the bus drivers to, most important, the teachers.”
J. ALVIN WILBANKS
Gwinnett County Public Schools
“Students of poverty obviously come to you with certain challenges. But what we have to do is realize the students could not help where they were born. They can’t help the neighborhood they live in. But we can control what happens at school. We have to do that. We have to ensure that, number one, they feel welcome. We have to ensure that they are involved in activities and coursework that really is engaging, but at the same time is rigorous, that helps them become the student they need to become to be successful while in school, to prepare for college or career, but more importantly to prepare for life.”