After three grueling years, staff, students and supporters of Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools basked in national attention and community pride after claiming the nation's top award for urban education Tuesday.
The 2011 Broad Prize brings $550,000 in scholarships, bragging rights for the district's 17,750 employees and a surge of educators and policymakers eager to see what CMS has done to help low-income and minority students succeed and graduate.
"It's a huge shot in the arm," said Charlotte Mayor Anthony Foxx, a CMS graduate and parent. "Our schools have gained a measure of acclaim today that is analogous to the Super Bowl of education."
The recognition comes in the wake of layoffs, school closings and fierce policy debates that have eroded teacher morale and split the community. It also lands during a school board campaign and superintendent search that could determine whether CMS continues on the path charted by Superintendent Peter Gorman, who resigned in June after five years.
Gorman, who now works for News Corp.'s Education Division, shared the stage in Washington, D.C., with interim Superintendent Hugh Hattabaugh, who acknowledged the stress that accompanied the gains.
"My hat's off to our teachers, our principals and other employees who have not been deterred by hard times," Hattabaugh said.
Among the things that caught the judges' attention were CMS' efforts to get top educators into struggling high-poverty schools, provide extra aid for the neediest students, and identify and reward the most effective teachers.
The prize doesn't mean criticism and challenges will vanish. Black, Hispanic and low-income students in CMS still trail their classmates on most academic measures - a national frustration acknowledged by Los Angeles philanthropist Eli Broad as he introduced the four finalists.
"The four districts we honor today have made the greatest progress of urban school systems nationwide but as their leaders will tell you, they have much more work ahead of them," Broad said, noting this is the 10th such award he has presented to highlight successes, spur competition and spread good ideas.
"What has most surprised and, yes, disappointed us about urban education reform is the slow pace at which it occurs," Broad said.
The involvement of billionaires such as Broad and Bill Gates in public education reform has aroused suspicion among teachers and activists in Charlotte and nationwide. The Broad Foundation has invested deeply in CMS - training Gorman and the board, helping pay for central-office staff and providing more than $3 million in grants - and some resent what they see as the group's business-driven approach to education.
But in Gwinnett County, Ga., which edged out CMS and three other districts for the 2010 Broad Prize, the biggest payoff was a surge of community pride, said spokeswoman Sloan Roach.
"No matter where you were within our greater community, people were talking about their schools," she said. "Everyone recognized the hard work they were doing day in and day out was making a difference."
Broad and U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan presented the prize. Hattabaugh, Gorman, school board Chair Eric Davis and a dozen other officials and educators were on hand to claim it.
In Charlotte, dozens of administrators and principals gathered to watch on the web.
Last year, a similar scene ended with staff quietly filing out after Gwinnett took the prize. Tuesday the Charlotte crew whooped and shouted when Duncan named CMS the winner.
CMS and Gorman already had a high national profile, said Tori Belle-Miller, communications director of the nonprofit advocacy group MeckEd. But she said the award will make CMS an even more attractive destination for superintendent candidates.
Successful public schools are also likely to be part of the pitch to the nation when the Democratic National Convention comes in September 2012.
And N.C. House Speaker Thom Tillis, a Mecklenburg Republican who was a CMS parent and volunteer, said the recognition is a good prod for the state legislature to keep working on giving local boards more flexibility.
CMS was chosen from among 75 eligible districts, based on size, low-income enrollment, minority enrollment and urban environment. A screening panel analyzed data, and Broad representatives came to Charlotte in May to visit schools and talk to staff, students and families.
They also awarded the $250,000 in scholarships that CMS earned as a finalist in 2010. This year there will be more than twice as much to distribute to the class of 2012.
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