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Schools Work on Achievement Gap

Six months ago, the term ``achievement gap'' meant nothing to Vanessa Murphy.

Now, the 16-year-old Akron girl has joined an effort to reduce the disparity in proficiency test scores between African-American and white students.

The Buchtel High sophomore is determined to no longer be part of Akron's achievement gap -- and to spur other black students to improve their performance.

``I don't want to be part of it,'' she said of the Akron school district's 20 percentage-point gap between white and black students on the ninth-grade proficiency test. ``I am trying to rise above it.''

The achievement gap is not a new issue. But the awareness of the problem -- and the desire by people like Vanessa to address it -- has come about only recently.

The issue is no longer confined to large, urban districts like Akron and Canton. In fact, the most severe performance gaps are now in suburban districts that have attracted an increasing number of African-American families during the past 10 years.

Tough new state and federal laws have exposed this gap and provide increasing penalties for districts and schools that fail to address it. Local districts have already had to provide extra tutoring and allow families to transfer their students to better-performing schools. Next August, several local schools face severe penalties that include a possible state takeover, replacement of staff or reopening as a charter school.

While some districts have decided to meet this challenge head on, others appear less willing to acknowledge that a problem exists.

``It's so sticky to deal with race relations, education and the achievement gap,'' said Fannie Brown, director of Coming Together, one of two groups leading an effort to study Akron's achievement gap.

Minorities enroll

Districts in the Akron-Canton area have become much more diverse during the past decade -- a trend that has brought with it the burden of addressing gaps in achievement.

Ten years ago, a few local districts had no African-American students. Today, every district in Summit, Stark, Wayne, Medina and Portage counties has at least a few black students.

Several districts, among them Stow-Munroe Falls, Streetsboro, and Woodridge, have seen extreme jumps in minority enrollment.

Until recently, proficiency test results by race were not included on Ohio's annual district report cards. The federal No Child Left Behind Act -- passed in 2002 -- required states to share these figures with the public. That law provides increasing penalties for districts that fail to address achievement gaps by the 2013-14 school year.

An Akron Beacon Journal analysis of fourth- and ninth-grade proficiency test results showed several local districts making gains in addressing gaps.

On the fourth-grade tests, Plain, Wooster and Nordonia Hills showed the biggest increase in how well African-American students did compared with whites. Twinsburg, Orrville and Massillon had the best improvement on the ninth-grade tests.

Six local districts have black students outperforming whites in measures on the state report cards -- either in a proficiency result or attendance and graduation rates: Alliance, Ravenna, Nordonia Hills, Streetsboro, Akron and Canton.

But, not all of the trends are positive. Several districts have seen their gaps widen.

Cities not alone

Those who assume Akron has the worst gap among local districts are wrong.

``Sometimes people tend to think that big cities are the places where the gap is most severe,'' said Joe Johnson, special assistant to state school Superintendent Susan Tave Zelman, who is addressing the state's achievement gap. ``That isn't always the case. There's work to be done everywhere.''

Woodridge has the widest gap -- far surpassing other local districts with its performance disparities. White students outperform blacks by 44.7 percentage points on the fourth-grade tests and by 27.4 percentage points on the ninth-grade tests, according to an Akron Beacon Journal analysis averaging scores from the past three years.

This Summit County district had a large rise in the enrollment of African-American students during the past decade. It draws students from several communities with a wide range of economic levels.

Superintendent Jeff Graham, who took over this year, said the district needs to do a better job of targeting students who are new to the area. He said students who have lived in the district for more than three years do far better than those who recently moved there.

``We need to be more proactive with our transient group,'' he said.

School leaders are trying to address the gap by tailoring instruction for students and providing extra help and enrichment for those who need it. They do not specifically target students by race, Graham said.

``We look at each student's specific set of needs,'' he said. ``We try to meet those needs, regardless of race.''

`Racially hostile'

Ten years ago, the U.S. Department of Education labeled the Nordonia Hills school district a ``racially hostile environment.''

Now, the Summit County district boasts the lowest achievement gap between black and white students and is seen as progressive for its treatment of race issues. The district has a 15.8 percentage-point gap between white and black students on the fourth-grade tests and a 7.2 percentage-point disparity on the ninth-grade tests, according to the Beacon Journal analysis.

The outlook wasn't always so rosy. In 1993, the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights concluded a yearlong investigation based on complaints by black parents. The district was ordered to take steps to correct its racial problems.

That's when Michael Douglas, an African-American teacher in the district, stepped in to help. He began working with teachers and administrators on diversity issues. After leaving the district in 1998 to begin his own company -- working with districts and corporations on diversity -- he continued to assist Nordonia Hills.

Perhaps Douglas' most important role has been as a mediator between black students and parents and school leaders.

When school leaders wanted to know why black students weren't going to the prom, they had Douglas talk to students. The answer: The school wasn't playing the type of music they liked.

``It just kind of woke us up,'' said Superintendent J. Wayne Blankenship, who was assistant superintendent for eight years before taking over the top post. ``It was so stupidly simple.''

The district has used this approach on other issues, such as why African-American students weren't taking certain courses, participating in school productions or playing basketball.

``I think those things make a big difference,'' said Douglas, who owns Diversity Initiatives in Chesterland and has worked with Woodridge, Stow-Munroe Falls, Ravenna and other school districts.

Douglas credited Blankenship with being willing to address the district's racial problems. Not all districts have been this receptive, he said. ``Sometimes I don't see the same openness. They are uncomfortable in addressing the subject.''

Efforts made

Akron and Canton school leaders point to various efforts they hope will narrow their districts' achievement gaps.

In Akron, administrators have adopted a new curriculum tailored to state standards for each major subject. They also test students every nine weeks to gauge progress and target those in need of extra help.

``In order to close the achievement gap, we revamped everything,'' said Akron Superintendent Sylvester Small.

The district has a new program called Project GRAD -- Graduation Really Achieves Dreams -- that aims to improve the troubled Buchtel cluster. This predominantly African-American group of schools historically has had the lowest performance of any Akron cluster.

Project GRAD, in its second year in Akron, is a national reform movement that has been successful in reducing the achievement gap in other struggling urban districts.

In Canton, school leaders have adopted a new effort in four elementaries and one middle school with a high percentage of minority students. When students walk into these classrooms, they have a task on the blackboard to do immediately, such as a math problem. The board also gives the objective for that day's lesson.

``We really see where it is making a difference,'' said Marva Jones, assistant to the superintendent.

The district has also set aside time for teachers to collaborate on lessons. At the middle and high school levels, the district has later start times once a month for this purpose.

``We can't keep doing what we have been doing,'' Jones said. ``It's not getting us where we need to be.''

Better than `excellent'

Urban districts aren't the only ones taking steps to bridge achievement gaps.

Even some districts ranked as excellent -- the top ranking on state report cards -- are trying to improve achievement in subgroups of students. If they fail, their good marks from the state will be in jeopardy.

In Medina, for example, teachers have been going into neighborhoods a couple of nights a week to help teach kindergartners and first-graders how to read. The district has set up a night school, an alternative program and peer tutoring. School leaders literally knocked on doors to recruit students for a summer program.

``We're not satisfied until everyone is passing,'' said Assistant Superintendent Sharon Smith, of the Medina district, which has an excellent ranking but an achievement gap of 39 percentage points on the fourth-grade proficiency test.

In Streetsboro, school leaders have gone to a standards-based report card for kindergartners through third-graders. Rather than getting an overall letter grade for a subject, the report cards rate students on how well they are meeting the state standards of topics within each subject.

``The teacher and parent are able to narrow to what areas need attention,'' said Superintendent Thomas Giovangnoli.

The district has three categories on the state report cards in which black students are doing better than whites.

In Twinsburg, school leaders eliminated the ability for parents to choose their child's teacher and increased the visual representation of minorities in classrooms, such as displaying African-American posters and dolls. Administrators and teachers meet monthly to study the book Leaving No Child Behind: Fifty Ways to Close the Achievement Gap.

``This does a good job of keeping our focus out there all the time, so it doesn't get lost in the shuffle,'' said Jim Jones, superintendent of the district that locally has one of the lowest gaps on the ninth-grade tests.

Collaboration needed

Many local leaders seem to think the achievement gap between white and black students is closeable. But they say this will take a collaboration of teachers, students, parents and community leaders.

``It's incumbent on all of us to close that gap,'' said Crystal Jones, coordinator of the Akron African-American Education Reform Coalition, made up of community groups in the Buchtel cluster.

Locally, an effort is under way to search for solutions to Akron's achievement gap. Coming Together and Summit Education Initiative will publish a report next month that will include achievement gap data for local districts and possible solutions for these disparities.

Between January and April, the groups will host five forums a month in Akron to discuss the gap issue. In early May, an education summit will be held that will result in recommendations for how to close Akron's gap.

Even the process of studying the gap has proved tricky. Though every Summit County district with a significant achievement gap was invited to join the effort, Akron was the only one that participated.

``We wanted to have the latitude to do it our way,'' said Jones, Twinsburg's superintendent. ``We didn't want to be bound by the direction or philosophies of another group of people.''

Vanessa Murphy and five other Buchtel High students have decided to help with the effort. They will be among the 25 moderators in the forums beginning next month.

The students are well-versed on the achievement gap. They studied the issue during a summer institute in July at the University of Akron that was sponsored by Project GRAD.

Before attending that event, Vanessa was unaware of the achievement gap. The teen, who has not yet passed the math or science portions of the proficiency test, has become determined to succeed. Her teachers and family have noticed an improvement in her work this year.

``She makes me proud to say she's my granddaughter,'' said June Stephens, with whom Vanessa lives.

Vanessa, who wants to be a preacher or a teacher, plans to urge her peers to do better in school. But, she says she can't do it alone and hopes others will join in the effort to close the achievement gap.

``Let us know we can succeed, if we try our best,'' she said. ``Without encouragement, we don't care and feel nobody else cares.''

— Stephanie Warsmith
Schools work on achievement gap
Beacon Journal


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