Wednesday, May 11, 2011

What's "urban"?

Talk about The Broad Prize for Urban Education always sparks questions about what they mean by "urban," and what kind of students can get scholarships from the Broad Foundation.

Some people say Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools shouldn't be labeled an urban district because it includes majority white, low-poverty suburban schools. And I did a double-take when Gwinnett County Schools landed last year's prize; I've always thought of Gwinnett as an Atlanta suburb.

After mulling some of those questions, the foundation redefined its eligibility standards this year, narrowing the field from 100 to 75. Spokeswoman Erica Lepping said even some of the past nominees have been taken aback by the "urban" label. The new requirements are based on size and demographics -- generally, at least 40 percent nonwhite and at least 40 percent who qualify for lunch subsidies. CMS is plenty big enough, 67 percent nonwhite and has a 53 percent poverty level.

Districts that make the finalist list, as CMS has three times, win significant scholarship money. I've heard rumblings that those scholarships are limited to low-income or minority students, or to those who attend "urban" schools. The student eligibility guidelines online don't say anything about the student's race or school demographics; it does specify financial need, as many scholarships do. The 13 who won scholarships Wednesday included white students, as well as four from the majority-white Myers Park High, which has relatively low poverty levels but includes a significant number of disadvantaged students.

CMS will find out Sept. 20 whether the third time's the charm. This time around, the big prize has shrunk a bit -- reduced, Lepping says, because philanthropist Eli Broad wants to make sure the endowment of around $40 million lasts longer. In 2010, Gwinett claimed $1 million in scholarships, while the finalists got $250,000 each. The foundation still touts the "$1 million Broad Prize," but now that's the total for the winner ($550,000) and three finalists ($150,000 each).

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