Gwinnett County Public Schools snagged the Broad Prize for Urban Education, an award the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation gives annually to urban districts that show the most gains in student performance and closing minority achievement gaps.
It's the second year in a row the 150,000-student district was nominated for the prize announced Tuesday.
The district is 28 percent black and 25 percent Hispanic, with about half of students qualifying for free or reduced lunch. But last year in reading and math, Gwinnett County schools outperformed all other Georgia districts serving students with similar family incomes.
"We have high expectations for students," said Superintendent J. Alvin Wilbanks. "Our teachers believe that all students can and should learn. It is their job to make sure that takes place every day."
Eli Broad called Gwinnett County the most improved large district in America. "They're the best," Broad said, quickly adding that others are also doing well.
"They're setting an example for lots of other districts. Hopefully others will follow their example," Broad said.
Though Gwinnett County is in suburban Atlanta, the district meets the criteria for the Broad Prize because it has a high percentage of minority and low-income students.
The district has among the state's smallest achievement gaps between black and white students at all grades in math, and the district narrowed that gap for middle school math by 8 percentage points between 2006 and 2009. In the same time period, the rate of black students taking the SAT college entrance exam rose 9 percentage points.
Ninety-nine percent of the district's schools met federal benchmarks in 2009, compared with 86 percent of schools statewide, and the superintendent has been in office nearly 15 years, providing consistency at the helm of the large district.
"Gwinnett County has demonstrated that an unwavering focus across a school system - by every member of the district and the community - can lead to steady student improvement and achievement," Education Secretary Arne Duncan said in a news release. "Districts across the country should look to Gwinnett County as an example of what is possible when adults put their interests aside and focus on students."
Wilbanks said his district would willingly share any process or strategy it has developed, including how the district has achieved a high school graduation rate of 84 percent and why 90 percent of those graduates go on to college or other post-secondary training.
His advice: Keep doing what you're supposed to be doing, don't confuse activity with results, give students the support they need to succeed, and push them to higher levels.
Gwinnett County beat out Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools in North Carolina, Montgomery County Public Schools in Maryland, and Socorro Independent School District and Ysleta Independent School District in El Paso, Texas, for the award.
The prize, created in 2002 by the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation in Los Angeles, is the nation's largest education award given to school districts. It is designed to reward schools for increasing graduation rates, improving low-income students' performance, and reducing differences in achievement rates between minority and white students. Winners are chosen from the country's 100 largest school systems serving a large percentage of low-income and minority students.
The prize money goes to college scholarships for students from each district. Runners-up win $250,000 for scholarships.
The Aldine Independent School District near Houston won last year. Other past winners include the New York City Department of Education, Boston Public Schools and the Houston Independent School District.