Corona-Norco Unified School District in Riverside County will be receiving $150,000 in college scholarships as a runner-up in the 2012 Broad Prize for Urban Education.

The Southern California district was one of four national finalists for the award, which was created by the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation to recognize large urban school districts that have made the most progress in boosting student achievement and closing the achievement gap.

The top prize of $550,000 in college scholarships went to five-time finalist Miami-Dade County Public Schools. The other two finalists this year are Houston and Palm Beach school districts. The $150,000 in scholarships is for this year’s high school seniors “who demonstrate significant financial need and who have improved their grades during high school.”

During a ceremony Tuesday at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan praised Corona-Norco for having one of the smallest achievement gaps in the state between African American and white students in math, science, and reading. And he lauded the teachers for taking nearly a 5 percent pay cut so student programs wouldn’t have to be cut.

“The district has worked to establish a collaborative team culture that puts the students first even in the midst of California’s brutal budget crunch,” said Duncan.

Of the district’s more than 53,000 students, 43 percent live in poverty and 14 percent are English learners, yet the district ranks in the top 100 among U.S. school districts, according the Broad Foundation.

In its review of the district, a panel of education, government, business, and public service leaders that selected the finalists and winner singled out Corona-Norco’s focus on improving students’ critical thinking skills and hands-on learning instead of just class lectures, and on improving teaching. The district requires teachers to complete 30 hours a year of professional development and develop a plan for implementing teaching strategies in their classrooms.

Key to the district’s turnaround, said the panel, is its commitment to developing a cadre of coaches known as teachers on special assignment to model teaching strategies in the classroom. They help teachers with their lesson plans and provide follow-up training.

The district encourages collaborative decision-making. Teachers in each grade get an hour a week to meet in order to review student progress, discuss challenges, and share strategies. And the district has demonstrated its commitment to making these sessions possible by changing school hours and the transportation schedule.

Duncan said that this type of collective approach is essential to help every child be successful in school. “What we have to do as a country is move from the individual to entire systems of excellence, not pockets of excellence, not islands of excellence,” said the Secretary. “That’s what our country needs.”

Two other California districts have received the highest honors in previous years: Long Beach won in 2003 and Garden Grove the following year.

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