S. TX school district gets $1 million prize

October 14, 2008 10:19:24 AM PDT
One of the nation's poorest school districts, already tousled by a hurricane and nervously awaiting division by a fence being built along the U.S.-Mexican border, won a coveted $1 million prize Tuesday for making academic advances. The Broad Prize for Urban Education is the nation's largest and will be divided among the district's graduating seniors for college scholarships.

"Brownsville is the best kept secret in America," said Eli Broad, founder of The Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation, announcing the decision in New York. "In the face of stark poverty, Brownsville is outpacing other large urban districts nationwide because it is smartly focusing all resources on directly supporting students and teachers."

The Brownsville Independent School District serves nearly 50,000 students -- 98 percent Hispanic and 43 percent learning English. Ninety-four percent of students qualify for free or reduced lunch, a common measure of poverty. Surrounding Cameron County had the highest poverty rate for a county of its size in the country at 34.7 percent, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

"This is considered the Nobel Prize in education," an elated Hector Gonzales, the district's superintendent, said by phone at the award presentation in New York. "It will help us move to the next level where all our students succeed."

Brownsville, in the southernmost tip of Texas, beat out finalists from Aldine, a district in Houston; Broward County, Fla.; Long Beach, Calif.; and Miami-Dade County, Fla. Each finalist will receive $250,000 for college scholarships.

Brownsville's school district, perhaps best known as an unlikely cultivator of young chess phenoms, impressed the foundation's judges by outperforming other Texas districts with similar income levels in reading and math at all grade levels in 2007.

The performance was only the most recent success of students making greater strides than similar Texas districts. More Brownsville students are taking advanced placement courses and the SAT college entrance exam than years past.

Brownsville's Hispanic students showed more improvement between 2004 and 2007 in reading and math than their peers in other Texas districts, according to the foundation's analysis.

The district closed the gap between Hispanic students and the state average for white students by 12 percent in middle school math.

Some 2,000 new arrivals from Mexico join the district's classrooms every year. District teachers emphasize mastery of English and by the end of third grade, 80 percent of students are proficient.

The district has been creative in trying to give more of its students a shot at higher education.

Earlier this month, the district partnered with the University of Texas at Brownsville and Texas Southmost College to welcome the first class of students in a dual-enrollment program that will allow students, who would be the first in their families to attend college, to earn college credits while in high school.

Also this month, the school district won the Annual Award for Urban School Board Excellence from the National School Boards Association's Council of Urban Boards of Education.

In May, the National Alliance for Hispanic Health announced the Alliance/Merck Ciencia Hispanic Scholars Program, which over five years will give 50 Hispanic high school students pursuing science, technology, engineering and mathematics degrees, $42,500-scholarships. Brownsville was one of three districts in the country chosen for the program.

The Broad scholarships will go to graduating seniors who have financial need and who showed academic improvement in high school. The first-place money doubled this year.

Brownsville, a first-time finalist this year, is the second Texas district to win. Houston Independent School District won the inaugural prize in 2002. Last year's winner was the New York City Department of Education.

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