August 30, 2008

San Mateo County Schools Try to Bridge Achievement Gap

By Neil Gonzales

Reginald Brown harbored a bad attitude toward school and teachers -- even distrust.

"I wasn't paying attention in class and doing my homework," he said. "I thought, 'What is this going to do for me?' I felt (teachers) were out to fail me."

His home situation didn't help. His parents divorced and were mostly absent from his life, leaving his grandparents to raise him.

The result? "I was struggling for a while in school," Reginald said.

But things started to turn around once he arrived at Hillsdale High School in San Mateo.

Reginald credited the change to the school's small-learning community program.

The small-learning model puts small groups of students together with the same teachers and subjects for up to two years, and fosters personalized instruction.

Teachers "spent time to get to know me," added Reginald, 16, now a junior at Hillsdale working toward college, "and I noticed they were here to help me, not fail me. Right now, I'm doing well in history, English and math."

Reginald is an encouraging example of African-American students who have made up ground in the long-standing fight to close the achievement gap -- a persistent educational disparity among youth of different ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds.

That divide is particularly pronounced with African-American and Latino students, who continue to perform far below their Caucasian and Asian peers.

Local, state and national education leaders have made closing the gap in public schools a greater priority than ever before.

Doing so is critical if the country is to continue producing a highly educated populace that can compete in an increasingly technological and diverse global economy, education officials say.

"It is a moral and economic imperative that we close the achievement gap," California Superintendent of Public Instruction Jack O'Connell said during the release of state standardized test results two weeks ago.

But is it possible in the face of such challenges as increasingly tough education standards and the increase in English-language learners?

Some educators believe the gap will never be eliminated but it can be reduced.

Across San Mateo County, schools have launched efforts -- everything from the small-learning approach at Hillsdale to increased focus on preschools, more parental involvement and year- round literacy-intervention programs -- to bridge that gap.

Muted progress

Over the years, the county's African-American and Latino students have improved significantly in state tests.

According to the latest test results, African-Americans and Latinos showed double-digit gains in the percentages of students scoring proficient and advanced in English-language arts from 2003 to 2008. The state's benchmark is for students to be at least proficient in a particular subject.

In math, African-Americans increased scores by 7 percent while Latinos jumped 8 percent.

The two groups, however, remained about 30 percent below their Caucasian counterparts in English and math this year.

That gap could persist given the increasingly higher standards placed on all groups of students, including English learners and the disabled, who are already struggling to catch up academically.

The federal No Child Left Behind Act requires annual improvement in test scores for any given group of students with the goal of 100 percent proficiency in math and reading by 2014.

Recently, the California Board of Education decided to require all middle-school students to be tested in Algebra I by the end of eighth grade.

Despite the current budget crisis, the state will need to find more than $3 billion a year to help students meet the new algebra requirement, O'Connell said.

Such stepped-up standards and accompanying financial considerations come as ethnic and immigrant populations continue to soar.

Statewide, nearly half of the 6.3 million public-school students in kindergarten to 12th grade are Latino.

According to the state Department of Education, the number of English learners in San Mateo County -- consisting of mostly Spanish speakers -- grew about 10 percent from 19,275 in 2006 to 21,124 this year.

Learning another language poses an extra hurdle for those students to meet high standards, educators say.

This past week, a Pew Hispanic Center report illuminated another significant challenge nationwide: More than one-third of Latino students have a parent who did not finish high school.

The fact that Latino youth are less likely than whites to have parents who graduated from high school is among several factors that contribute to the achievement gap, said Richard Fry, a senior research associate at the center.

Those parents tend not to understand the school system and thus are unable to help their children, Fry said.

The Hillsdale High model

Because of such factors, "you can't completely overcome that gap," Hillsdale Principal Jeff Gilbert said, "but you can make a difference by changing" how instruction is delivered.

In 2000, the school launched the small-learning program funded by $1.2 million in federal grants.

The program divides incoming freshmen into three smaller schools- within-a-school of about 100 students each.

Each one has four core teachers covering English, history, science and math. These teachers work as a team to instruct the same students for two years.

As juniors, students enter another school-within-a-school, working with new core teachers and preparing for college for the remainder of their high school career.

The whole idea is to give students more individual attention, stronger relationships with their teachers and better instructional consistency than what a traditional comprehensive high school setting can offer.

School statistics indicate that the program is helping narrow the achievement gap at Hillsdale.

In English, Latino ninth-graders improved nearly 105 percent in the number of students scoring at least proficient in state tests between 2003 and 2008 compared with about 15 percent for their white peers.

In Algebra I, Latino ninth-graders jumped 100 percent while their white counterparts went up about 26 percent.

Gilbert taught in an East Palo Alto school serving underprivileged students and argues that low-income youth "value education more than even middle-class students because they see the effects of having no education," he said. "But the challenge is that they don't know how to access that education and don't know how to maneuver through that system."

Hillsdale's small-learning program allows students to do just that, offering them Advanced Placement courses and open communication with advisers, he said.

"Low-income students have a high attrition rate in college," Gilbert added. "So we're trying to find ways to get them in rigorous classes," which require students to go beyond rote learning and engage in critical thinking.

The small-learning environment has put Quinta Ekong at ease, making school that much more welcoming.

"It's a comfortable setting," the 16-year-old junior said. "You don't have so many people in class. We all share the same teachers. You always know five to 10 people, and it's not always new."

Quinta also knows she can always go to an adviser for help.

Last semester, she was getting a D in chemistry and turned to her adviser. "We really cracked down the last four weeks," she said. "We also talked to my teacher. I did make-up work and extra-credit assignments. I pulled it up to an A-minus."

Parental influence

In contrast to many other black students, Quinta -- who is of Nigerian descent -- has excelled in school most of her life.

She attributed much of that success to having parents who both went to college and push their children to pursue higher education.

"My family is right behind us and following our school work," she said. "But maybe some other black students don't have a strong family unit behind them."

Educators agree that parent participation is key in a child's learning, and school districts have programs to try to increase that involvement.

"One thing we're trying to do is train parents to be good advocates for their children," said Dorthy Burnside, coordinator of parent involvement and youth development for the Sequoia Union High School District in Redwood City.

To be that advocate, parents need to know such things as how to transition from middle school to high school, college requirements and finding appropriate resources for their children, Burnside said.

This school year, Sequoia Union seeks to bring that training to parents of elementary students in the East Palo Alto area, which has a large minority population.

"We want to bridge the information gap because certain other communities get this information much earlier," Burnside said. "We want to create this kind of energy in communities of color, so they can realize their educational goals for their children and start as early as kindergarten. Parents can go out in their communities asking questions and holding schools accountable."

Culture clash

Closing the achievement gap can also mean tackling cultural issues.

For instance, Reginald feels black students generally are more verbal than other groups. "I think we do better with more verbal (exercises) than just looking at a paper and writing down answers," he said.

New Jersey-based education consultant Derrick Campbell, an African-American, backs some of Reginald's observations.

Teachers must "know that some minority students exhibit verbal behavior when listening," Campbell recently wrote in a brief study. "Blacks accept interrupting others ... as valued and an indication that the individual is listening (and) comprehending and has anticipated the point being made."

Pacific Islander students are another group lagging behind academically.

Part of that problem stems from contrasting values among Pacific Islander and American societies, Burnside said.

In the Pacific Islander culture, success is tied more to the community, she said. "But when you come to our country, success is more individual. That can be confusing to Pacific Islander students and families."

Efforts such as the Pacific Islander Higher Education Recruitment Program at University of California, Berkeley, try to reconcile the conflicting values, encouraging those youth to pursue college degrees.

In his "State of Education" speech earlier this year, O'Connell outlined an ambitious plan to combat the achievement gap.

The plan includes raising awareness among teachers and school administrators about cultural and racial issues.

This training "will help our educators provide a school climate in which students from all cultures and races feel equally supported in learning to high expectations," O'Connell said.

Preventive care

O'Connell's plan also involves improving the quality of preschools and expanding them statewide.

Early-childhood educators applaud that goal, especially since a recent study by the nonprofit research organization RAND Corp. showed the children who could particularly benefit from preschool are the least likely to be in it such as Latinos, blacks and those whose parents have low education.

Preschool is "a preventive strategy," said Jeanie McLoughlin, director for the San Mateo County Preschool for All program. "If we could build toward universal access to preschool and begin it with children who need it the most, we could really have a significant impact on the achievement gap because we would be eliminating it on the front end."

Preschool helps young students build early reading and other skills that will form a solid foundation for future academic success, educators say.

Year-round literacy program

At the beginning of a summer program at Cesar Chavez School in East Palo Alto, two incoming first-graders didn't know how to write their last names.

"But within three days, they were able to," said teacher Alfredo Juarez. "We made such big progress."

That's because Juarez was able to give his students one-on-one attention in the literacy program featuring classes with no more than six students each.

The program serves about 60 low-income students in kindergarten to eighth-grade in the Ravenswood School District. Newly expanded, it will continue to work with the same youth throughout the academic year after their regular classes are over.

These students will also have the same teachers they had during the summer.

It's another version of the small-learning strategy to chip away at the achievement gap, organizers say.

Because Juarez's students during the summer will already be familiar with him and his style of teaching when the regular school year starts, he said, "we're hoping they'll be leaders and models for other students."

That, in turn, will improve the self-esteem of struggling students, "increase their productivity and skills, and get them more motivated," said Ruth Woods, Ravenswood director of student services.

Money and attitude adjustment

A major overhaul in the state's school-finance system would go a long way to lift the achievement of low-income students, indicated a recent report by the Warren Institute on Race, Ethnicity and Diversity at UC Berkeley.

A streamlined finance system would direct greater resources to districts with higher concentrations of low-income and non-English speaking students, the report said.

"Unless we are serious about reducing poverty and increasing economic security for blue-collar families, we shouldn't really expect to close the achievement gap dramatically," added UC Berkeley education professor Bruce Fuller. "I do think increasing access to quality preschool and allocating stronger teachers to poor communities will help us a little bit."

Many educators say money alone will not solve the problem. A widespread attitude change can be as effective.

That could involve getting teachers and students alike to believe success can happen through work and not because of luck or innate ability, said Cheryl Hightower, associate superintendent of instructional services for the county Office of Education.

"We know people have different ability and styles," she said. "But we want teachers to work with kids around effort. They can organize a lesson so students have small successes. The kids begin to see that if they put in the effort they can be successful."

Staff writer Neil Gonzales covers education. He can be reached at 650-348-4338 or [email protected]

Originally published by Neil Gonzales, San Mateo County Times.

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