ORLANDO, Fla. — In a first for the largest education award given to public schools nationwide, jurors decided to split the $1 million Broad Prize between two urban districts — a past winner with an established record in Georgia and an up-and-coming district showing recent gains in Florida.
Watching Monday's announcement via live feeds from New York, educators from Gwinnett County Public Schools in metro Atlanta and Orange County Public Schools in Orlando celebrated Monday as each was promised $500,000 in college scholarships for their high school seniors.
The decision marked the first time in its 12-year history that the Broad Prize for Urban Education has gone to two districts. U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan named the winners, and the ceremony included a speech by former British Prime Minister Tony Blair.
Gwinnett and Orange counties were the only two finalists picked from a pool of 75 eligible districts. Usually, four or five are chosen, but this year, jurors were disappointed with urban schools' progress, which they found "incremental at best," according to a letter from the jury.
But the two finalists stood out, though for different reasons, according to the jurors — including former Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell, former U.S. Housing and Urban Development Secretary Henry Cisneros, former U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Donna Shalala, former U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings and former U.S. Sen. Christopher Dodd, CEO of the Motion Picture Association of America.
Jurors found that Gwinnett County, a winner in 2010, is "consistently one of the top performers in Georgia." And Orange County has "galvanized the community around raising student achievement — quickly and dramatically."
"In the end, we decided both finalists deserved to win the 2014 Broad Prize," Rendell said in the jurors' letter.
The prize rewards districts for improving achievement among disadvantaged students. Criteria include state test scores, graduation rates, performance compared with similar districts in the state, preparation of students for college, and the closing of the achievement gaps between ethnic groups and low-and-high income students.
For some Gwinnett County students, the scholarships may mean the difference between pursuing a college degree or stopping their formal education after high school, said Lorna Gallimore, director of assessments at the district office, where educators rose from their chairs applauding when they heard the announcement.
"We recognize that all children can learn, and all parents want the same things for their children, regardless of their socioeconomic backgrounds," Gallimore said.
In Orange County, the district has embarked on a major capital campaign, built smaller neighborhood schools and increased the number of magnet schools in the districts.
Because of a several-second delay in audio and visual components in the feed from New York, the 300-plus educators packed into an Orlando auditorium at first seemed confused about whether they had heard the announcement correctly. When they saw a graphic on the giant TV screen that it was a tie, they jumped out of their seats and cheered.
Dorina Sackman, an English-as-a-second-language teacher and Florida's Teacher of the Year, said the key to the district's improvement has been a focus on data-driven results combined with emphasizing the teacher-student relationship.
"You can have data, data, data all you want, but it's the teachers who have those relationships with their children and understand their stories and infuse that into their knowledge of putting that into their lesson so the kids can master the content," Sackman said.
The prize is sponsored by a foundation run by Edythe and Eli Broad, who made his fortune in home construction and insurance.
The districts "are doing something right with leadership and laser-like focus," Broad said.
Associated Press writer Ray Henry in Suwanee, Georgia, contributed to this report.