Long Beach school district is a finalist for Broad Prize

By Seema Mehta, Los Angeles Times Staff Writer April 3, 2008 The Long Beach Unified School District was again named a finalist Wednesday for the prestigious Broad Prize, which honors academic excellence and strong performance by minority and poor students in urban districts across the nation. "It's a huge honor," said Christopher J. Steinhauser, superintendent of the nearly 91,000-student district. "We pride ourselves on a path of continual improvement, and to be recognized by the [Eli and Edythe Broad] foundation as one of the top five school systems in America every time we've been eligible is a huge honor for teachers, students and parents." In 2003, Long Beach Unified won the prize, which includes $500,000 in college scholarships. The district -- the third-largest in California -- has been a top-five finalist every year it has been eligible since the inception of the prize, an honor that comes with $125,000 in scholarships. Districts that win the prize are then ineligible for three years. The four other finalists this year are districts in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., and Miami, as well as the Aldine Independent School District near Houston and the Brownsville Independent School District on the Texas-Mexico border. The winner will be announced Oct. 14 in New York City. Districts cannot apply for the award. Instead, researchers determine improvement in several areas of student performance based on data from the nation's 100 largest cities, and compare student achievement among various districts with similar demographics. Long Beach was recognized in part because in 2007, its students outperformed those in other California school districts with similar income levels in reading and math at all grade levels. Latino and lower-income students had greater reading and math proficiency than their peers elsewhere in the state, and black students had greater math proficiency. Minority students also were more likely to take the SAT and AP college entrance tests, and to score better. The district has also built on prior gains. "They continued to improve year after year," said Erica Lepping, a spokeswoman for the foundation. "It's obvious they are doing something systematically that is leading to these gains." One of the qualities that has helped the district is strong, sustained leadership, Lepping said. Steinhauser has been with the district for 26 years and has been its leader for six -- double the average tenure of a superintendent of a large school district. The previous superintendent served for a decade. But the city's public schools are not without skeptics, such as Jeremy Lahoud, organizing co-director of Californians for Justice, a grass-roots organization that promotes education reform. Lahoud argues that minority students in the district are less likely than their white classmates to graduate with the course work that will allow them to attend four-year colleges. Lahoud said, however, that the district has been increasingly willing to work with his organization and others, and cites several recent initiatives as signs of progress. On Tuesday, the school board approved goals for its new Academic Success Initiative, including doubling eighth-grade math proficiency and eighth-grade algebra enrollment by 2013. Last month, the district announced a partnership with local colleges that promises to provide student and family outreach to all middle and high school students, a tuition-free first semester at Long Beach Community College starting in 2011, and to offer Cal State Long Beach admission to district students who complete minimum college preparatory requirements or community college transfer requirements. "There's definitely more work that needs to be done," Lahoud said. But "we're actually really pleased about the direction they're heading."