Education prize eludes Corona-Norco district

Teachers and administrators from the Corona-Norco Unified School District, including Washington Elementary Principal Bo Barnett, left, and Sierra Vista Elementary Principal Lara Gruebel, gather at Corona High School on Tuesday morning to watch a live stream of the announcement of this year's Broad Prize for Urban Education.
(Christina House / For The Times)

Pairs of eyes peered through the dark Corona High School auditorium at a projector screen hanging above a stage flanked by flags and plastic plants.

About 60 Corona-Norco Unified School District teachers and administrators gathered Tuesday morning to watch a live stream of the unveiling of this year’s Broad Prize for Urban Education.

For the first time, the 53,000-student, largely Latino and low-income school district in the Inland Empire was a finalist for the prestigious national education competition.


The Corona crowd cheered as U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan, who revealed the winner at the announcement held at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, spoke of the district’s accomplishments.

After a mention of the district’s success at narrowing the achievement gap between minority and white students, Duncan praised Corona-Norco administrators and teachers for taking a 5% pay cut two years ago to avoid teacher layoffs.

“The district puts the students first,” Duncan said.

Then, the screen froze. A woman sitting in the third row screamed, and a man next to her sighed. “Oh, no. This is going to happen right during the announcement,” he said.

The live stream lagged a few times, but it came through when it mattered most.

“Now comes the good part,” Duncan said. “Is there an envelope?”

In New York, the smiling education secretary made a quick rip, looked down at the envelope and then paused.

In Corona, an elementary school principal clutched her colleague’s hand.

As the words “Miami-Dade County Public Schools” reverberated out of the auditorium’s speakers, she quickly pulled her hand back and buried her forehead in it.

The crowd paused, but then broke into a rhythmic clap. Soon, the room went quiet again.

John Zickefoose, a Corona-Norco school board member, seized upon the silence as a chance to take a good-spirited jab at the Miami-Dade school district, which was nominated for the prize four times before winning this year.

“Corona-Norco, we’re already winners and it won’t take us five years,” he said, smiling.

A row of elementary school principals sitting close to the screen agreed that Tuesday’s announcement wasn’t a loss.

“We’re still going to have our own success stories,” said Charla Capps, principal of Ben Franklin Elementary School. “We still have $150,000 for our kids.”

While the winner gets $550,000, each of the finalists get $150,000 to fund scholarships for the district’s seniors.

For 17-year-old senior Chelsey Williams, president of Santiago High School’s black student union, that’s a welcome prospect.

“More students are going to be able to go to the college of their choice and not stress out so much about financial aid,” she said before Tuesday’s announcement.

Districts can’t apply for the Broad Prize, which honors academic excellence and improvement in urban districts. Instead, a panel of education experts analyzes test score and graduation rate data and singles out four finalist districts.

This wasn’t Southern California’s first stab at the prize — the Long Beach Unified School District won in 2003 and Garden Grove Unified was the victor in 2004.

And if Corona-Norco has anything to do with it, it won’t be the last time a Southland district is so honored.

“We’re not going away,” Assistant Supt. of Human Resources Sam Buenrostro said through a subdued smile. “It’s not a one- or two-year thing. It’s a process.”