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South Texas school district wins $1 million prize for student progress

Brownsville receives the Broad Prize for Urban Education for narrowing the achievement gap for its Hispanic students.

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At the southernmost tip of Texas, a border city is showing what can happen when the whole community commits to student progress.

In short, the Brownsville Independent School District, where nearly all students come from low-income Hispanic families and where 4 in 10 are not native English speakers, has managed to make huge strides in closing the achievement gap with whites and higher-income students in Texas. It has also boosted student scores on the SAT, as well as the share of students who take the test.

The gains – and the district's template for achieving them – this year earned it the Broad Prize for Urban Education. The award, announced Tuesday, comes with $1 million in college scholarships for high school seniors who show academic progress and financial need.

"The philosophy we have is, 'All children can learn,' ... and that can be tailored to any district," says Brownsville Superintendent Hector Gonzales. "We brought in a lot of staff development for every teacher to be able to look at [students'] strengths and weaknesses and take those students to the next level.... Teachers truly believe that the students can be very successful."

A review board of education experts chose five Broad Prize finalists from among the 100 largest US school districts that serve sizable numbers of low-income and minority students. It considered factors such as reduction of achievement gaps, performance on state tests, graduation rates, college entrance exams, and accountability measures in the federal No Child Left Behind (NCLB) law. A consultant visited the finalist districts to conduct interviews. Then a jury of business, government, and public-service leaders chose the winner.

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