updated 9/18/2007 2:26:52 PM ET 2007-09-18T18:26:52

The nation's largest school system has won the country's top prize in public education, which honors an urban district with the greatest student improvement and most success reducing achievement gaps among the poor and minorities.

The New York City school system of 1 million students was awarded the largest share of the $1 million Broad Prize for Public Education, handed out annually by The Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation. It will receive $500,000 in college scholarships for graduating high school seniors.

Eli Broad said in a statement that New York is "a model of successful urban school district reform."

The four other finalist school districts each won $125,000 in scholarships. They are in Bridgeport, Conn., Long Beach, Calif., Miami-Dade County, Fla., and San Antonio.

Announcement in D.C.
U.S. Education Secretary Margaret Spellings was to join philanthropist Broad in Washington Tuesday for the announcement. Former Secretary of State Colin Powell and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi were to speak at the event.

New York City had not yet been notified it was the winner, but when asked about the possibility, Schools Chancellor Joel Klein said in an interview that the top prize "shines the spotlight on our work and does help us continue, puts wind to our back for the additional changes we want to make and the things we need to do."

A panel selected the finalists out of 100 districts, based on data compiled and analyzed by MPR Associates, Inc., a national education research consulting firm.

To choose the winner, teams visited each finalist district last spring to interview administrators, observe classrooms and conduct focus groups with teachers and parents. Those research teams also talked to community leaders and union representatives.

A non-partisan jury of nine people from government, business, education and public service then reviewed the performance data and the information from site visits.

Reading, math scores stood out
The Broad Foundation said New York City, with its 1,450 schools, 80,000 teachers and annual budget of $17 billion, stood out for several reasons. On reading and math in all grades in 2006, it outperformed other districts in the state that serve students at similar income levels, according to Broad methodology.

The city's poor students and its black and Hispanic pupils also outperformed their peers in comparable districts. The student body is 39 percent Hispanic, 32 percent black, 14 percent white and 13 percent Asian.

New York was also heralded for progress it has shown in closing the achievement gap for Hispanic children in high school and elementary reading and math, compared with whites. More black and Hispanic children are also taking the SAT exam, the foundation noted.

New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg has said wants to be held accountable for his education record above anything else. In his first term, he wrestled away control of the school system, putting it under mayoral authority, and has been in charge for nearly seven years.

The city's education system is hardly perfect. While the overall graduation rate is inching upward, still roughly half of New York City high school students do not graduate in four years.

"New York City still maintains dismally low graduation rates, especially for black and Latino students, and the Department of Education has failed to engage parents," said Public Advocate Betsy Gotbaum, a vocal critic of Bloomberg's reforms. "If we are No. 1 in terms of achievement, it's pretty sad news for the rest of the nation."

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