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Minority Achievement Gap Widens

School board candidates propose new initiatives to improve minority scores

The three Arlington school board candidates criticized the lack of progress in closing the achievement gap between white and minority students this past year, as newly released data shows a widening gulf concerning math scores and enrollment in advanced courses.

The number of black students graduating last year with an International Baccalaureate or advanced diploma fell by nine percentage points, down to 23 percent. The figure for white graduates grew by three percentage points from the 2003-04 results, to 73 percent, and by one point for Hispanic graduates, to 31 percent.

The percentage of white students enrolled in at least one advanced course rose by six percentage points, versus one point for black pupils and three for Hispanics. The results were released as part of the school system’s Strategic Plan for 2006-11, unveiled two weeks ago.

“The fact that we have a persistent gap in academic achievement in groups of kids is unacceptable,” said Ed Fendley, who is running to fill Elaine Furlow’s seat on the school board. “The last couple of years we have really stagnated in our performance.”

Although some categories saw improvement, to include a sharp rise in the number of black elementary school students reading on grade level, Arlington school officials said they were disappointed by this year’s results. The second goal in the new Strategic Plan is to eliminate disparities in achievement among minorities and other identified groups, such as students with disabilities.

“This is a major source of concern,” said School Board Chairman David Foster, who pointed out that black and Hispanic students improved their scores on the Standard of Learning tests last year. “It will take increased efforts to narrow it in the future.”

There were slight improvements in minority results in high school math courses, but these lagged behind those strides made by their white counterparts. The percentage of white students passing Geometry with a C or better by the end of ninth grade grew by seven points last year, while increasing two points for black students and one point for Hispanic students.

Superintendent Robert G. Smith said that although the gap was expanding in many target areas, this was mainly because of better performances by white students rather than a drop in minority results. “We need to understand what is happening here and we don’t,” Smith said. “It’s not going in the direction we want. I’m not sure if we just have a hiccup.”

THE SCHOOL BOARD and superintendent need to acknowledge the growing minority gap and be accountable to the public, said school board candidate Bill Barker, a former civilian naval officer.

“Admitting a problem is the first step toward resolving it,” said Barker, who is endorsed by the Arlington County Republican Committee. “The superintendent needs to come out and say ‘we have bad news and here is what we are doing to fix it.’”

To help mitigate the differences in scores between white and minority students, the school system has implemented several programs in recent years. Every middle and high school has a minority achievement coordinator who monitors coursework and provides counseling. Wakefield High School conducts a “Co-hort” program for black and Hispanic males who have a C average or better at the conclusion of their freshman year. This is an umbrella support group where participants can openly discuss the challenges facing them as they begin advanced placement classes, as well as receive college guidance and academic assistance.

The Arlington school system collaborates with George Mason University in an “early identification program” for students who would be the first in their families to attend college. Though not geared toward any specific group of students, the program has provided tutoring and summer courses for hundreds of minority pupils.

BESIDES POSSESSING an enduring achievement gap, Arlington schools also have an “expectation” chasm between white and minority students, said Cecelia Espenoza, an Independent candidate for school board.

“First we need to change people’s mentalities,” explained Espenoza, a former PTA president for Claremont Immersion Program. “If we don’t plant seeds of success for every child then we fail.”

The most effective way to increase the test scores of minority students is to reduce class sizes so teachers can spend more time working with each child, Espenoza said. If elected, she would advocate additional reading programs in elementary schools as well as using outside educators to support such projects.

The achievement gap is identifiable as early as kindergarten, said Fendley, former head of the Drew Model School Association. Therefore it is imperative for Arlington to expand its early childhood education, including both the Montessori program and the Virginia Pre-school Initiative. Fendley envisions the school board working closely with the county government to provide grants for nonprofit organizations to fill the county’s pre-school needs.

“Early childhood education is clearly linked to academic and life-time success,” he added. “Currently the demand [for pre-schools] outstrips the supply.”

Better outreach and communication between school officials, teachers and parents is essential to improving student performance, Fendley added.

If Barker wins the November election he would strive to implement mandatory attendance in enrichment programs for students struggling in classes. Barker would also like to create partnerships with local community colleges and introduce “distant learning classes,” where students can take courses online that Arlington does not offer.

“We spend a lot of money on the schools and we can give the students a world-class education,” Barker said. “Right now we are squandering it.”