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Garden Grove Schools Triumph

A low-income district wins $500,000 in a national achievement contest

September 21, 2004|Joel Rubin | Times Staff Writer

A five-year push to improve student performance, despite poverty and language hurdles, literally paid off Monday for the Garden Grove Unified School District.

The district was awarded the 500,000 top prize from billionaire philanthropist Eli Broad's foundation to acknowledge the most accomplished of the nation's impoverished urban school districts.

Garden Grove had made the ranks of the five finalists in the last two years. The announcement that it won triggered shrieks and hollers Monday from the district teachers, administrators and trustees attending the ceremony at Disney Hall in Los Angeles.

"Wow," said Supt. Laura Schwalm, who was visibly stunned by the announcement.

"We've asked our teachers to make some tough changes over the past few years, to get everyone aligned and focused on the same goals.

"This really validates what we're doing."

The money will fund scholarships for Garden Grove seniors bound for college.

Nationwide, 106 districts qualified for the Broad Foundation award, including Los Angeles Unified and 14 other California districts.

Garden Grove becomes the second California district, after Long Beach Unified, to win the award, established in 2002.

"It was a tough decision," Broad said, "but Garden Grove's achievements across the board, in increasing student progress and closing achievement gaps, told a real story of collaboration."

To be eligible for the prize, districts must serve at least 35,000 urban students in kindergarten through 12th grade.

At least 40% must be poor enough to qualify for free or discounted meals at school, and an equal number must be minorities.

A panel of education experts narrowed the field to five after evaluating state test scores, graduation rates and demographics for each district.

The other finalists were Boston Public Schools, which has been a finalist for three years, and districts in Charlotte, N.C.; Norfolk, Va.; and Houston. They will each get $125,000 for scholarships.

Before selecting Garden Grove, researchers visited each of the five districts, sitting in on classes and staff meetings, reviewing more data and conducting interviews.

Foundation officials said they saw Garden Grove performing far above other districts with comparable levels of poverty and immigration status.

Of its 50,000 students, more than half are considered English learners and nearly 60% are poor enough to qualify under the meals program.

Regardless, nearly all the district's 66 schools met or exceeded performance targets mandated by the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

They also surpassed national averages by graduating more than three-quarters of those in each senior class.

The number of students performing at their own grade level in reading and math has increased steadily over three years, and the district has narrowed the achievement gap between white students and the district's largely Latino and Vietnamese populations to levels far below state averages.

Foundation officials and Garden Grove teachers credited Schwalm and her staff with fostering what they call a rare atmosphere of support for teachers and principals.

Schwalm has worked in the district for 31 years, the last five as superintendent.

Judges also credited Garden Grove teachers with dropping old classroom habits in favor of lesson plans based on data from student testing and state-mandated academic standards.

Schwalm emphasized that more work remains: 27% to 33% of the district's high school students, for instance, tested "far below basic" or "below basic" on state English exams.

"We have not focused on what we cannot do with the resources we don't have," Schwalm said in accepting the award.

"But, instead, have focused on what we can do with what we do have. It's proof that a lot can be done."

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