John Fensterwald co-wrote this article. It has been updated to include a comment from the president of the district’s teachers union.
Despite the worst education funding crisis in decades, a California school district boosted achievement enough to win a spot in the final four of the 2012 Broad Prize for Urban Education. The 53,000-student Corona-Norco Unified School District in Riverside County is in the running for $550,000 in college scholarships from the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation.
Since the Broad Foundation began awarding the prize ten years ago, two California districts have received top honors: Long Beach in 2003 and Garden Grove the following year. Both were also finalists several times (there is a three-year fallow period after winning), as was Florida’s Miami-Dade County Public Schools, which is one of the other three finalists this time around, along with nearby Palm Beach County and the Houston Independent School District. Runners-up each receive $150,000 in college scholarships.
California State Board of Education member Carl Cohn said he’s really excited about Corona-Norco being named a finalist because “there’s been a two-year drought where no California school district has been a Broad Prize finalist. I was starting to worry that the fiscal famine was taking a toll.”
Cohn spent seven years as a member of the Broad Prize review committee, and ten years as superintendent of Long Beach Unified, leaving the year before the district won the grand prize. To put the current fiscal climate in perspective, he said that during his tenure in Long Beach he cut the budget twice during the recession of the early nineties: $5 million one year and $9 million the next. “That’s absolute chump change compared to what districts are facing now, year after year.”
A data-rich decision
Districts can’t enter this competition or be nominated. They’re placed into a pool of 75 contenders that meet a specific set of criteria, including:
- Serving at least 37,500 students
- Having at least 40% of their students eligible for free or reduced-price school lunches
- Having at least 40% of their students from minority groups
- Being designated as an urban district
Those districts are then placed into a computer centrifuge of sorts, where they’re analyzed on a slew of criteria, such as how well students perform on state standardized tests; whether they’re closing the achievement gap by race, ethnicity, and family income; graduation rates; the number of students taking AP classes and passing the exams; participation rates and scores on the SAT and ACT college entrance exams; and student demographics by race, ethnicity, family income, English learners, and special education students.
The review panel gets a binderful of information on each district. “There’s an incredible amount of data that we see. The work that goes into this is really substantial,” said Christopher Cross, a member of the review committee and former Assistant Secretary of Education.
Cross is especially interested in making sure that a district’s improvements are sustainable. “It’s not a question of just having a good year, you have to have performance over time, ideally over four or five years,” he said.
In its press release announcing the finalists, the Broad Foundation cited several areas in which Corona-Norco stood out. Last year, African-American students ranked in the top 10 percent in reading and math on the California Standards Tests. Between 2008 and 2011, both participation rates and scores on college placement and Advanced Placement exams increased for Hispanic and African-American students.
EdTrust-West found similar improvements in its annual district report cards released last month. Out of 147 unified districts measured, Corona-Norco ranked sixth overall, and stood out in particular on college readiness. Between 2010 and 2011, the number of African-American seniors who had completed the A-G courses needed for admission to Cal State and the University of California increased by 16 percentage points; for Latinos it was 10 percent higher.
For Superintendent Kent Bechler, 55, the Broad nomination is a great honor on his way out. Two weeks ago, he told Corona-Norco trustees that he plans to retire at the end of this year after five years leading the district. He learned of the Broad Prize honor Wednesday as he was heading to New Zealand on vacation and so couldn’t be reached for comment.
Corona-Norco School Board President Bill Newberry and other top administrators credited Bechler for guiding academic improvement. “He’s a superior leader,” Newberry said. “Training, from school board members on down, is important to him.” Every Wednesday, every school has an hour of collaboration time either at the start or end of school – a practice Bechler instituted. In part due to a wave of retirements, Bechler has appointed new principals at the district’s five high schools, most of the middle schools and many elementary schools. “He made sure that the leadership in the district office and in schools aligned with core values and expectations,” said Assistant Superintendent Robert Taylor.
(Updated) Bechler’s leadership also gets high marks from Bill Fisher, the president of the Corona-Norco Teachers Association, who attributed much of the district’s success to Bechler’s commitment to collaboration and problem solving. That has enabled the CNTA to become “more of an association and less of a union in working directly with the district” over budget cuts and scheduling. (The union has taken two straight years of 5 percent pay cuts to avoid layoffs.) And Bechler has brought in and promoted good leaders, Fisher said.
Even Broad Prize finalists, however, can find themselves ensnared by the No Child Left Behind law. In 2010, Corona-Norco became a Program Improvement district because it missed seven of 42 targets, some by a few percentage points, some by double-digits. Latino, African-American and low-income students for the most had made steady progress, but not enough to keep up with escalating targets in math and English-language arts. The screening jury considers failure to make Adequate Yearly Progress goals under NCLB goals as one factor of many, said Broad Foundation spokeswoman Erica Lepping.
School districts don’t pay much attention to the criticisms. The prize elevates them to model status. Superintendents are asked to speak around the country; other districts send administrators and teachers to visit and learn how to replicate the successes. “I’ve heard of superintendents being hired who have told the committees, ‘You hire me and I’ll make you a Broad finalist or a Broad winner,'” said Cross.
That’s exactly what the Broad Foundation is hoping for. They want the prize is to spur competition and provide incentives for districts to improve academic achievement of disadvantaged students and “restore the public’s confidence in our nation’s schools by highlighting successful urban districts.”
Over the next few months, Broad will send teams of researchers and educators to each of the four finalists districts for a week-long site visit where they’ll observe classes, conduct interviews and meet with parents and community leaders. All that information goes to a different review panel, known as the selection jury, which decides who gets the top prize.
Juror Richard Riley, who served as President Clinton’s education secretary, called the process very fair and well-thought-out. “It emphasizes progress, it emphasizes leadership and it emphasize governance,” said Riley. “All those are aspects that make up a really high quality district.”
The winner will be announced on October 23 in New York City.