In 1998 Arlington school officials announced they were making the elimination in disparities in achievement between minority students and their white counterparts one of the system’s top priorities.
In the intervening eight years much progress has been made. The overall achievement gap between white and black and Latino students has plummeted by more than 40 percent. The proportion of Latino students enrolled in advanced classes has increased by 116 percent, and jumped nearly 80 percent for black pupils.
But newly released data shows that a persistent chasm remains, and that scores of black and Latino students have leveled off over the past three years in many key school categories. While black and Latino students now perform nearly as well as their white peers in advanced courses and at reading on grade level in elementary school, they have been slipping in recent years on math scores and overall graduation rates.
"We are making progress, but there are certainly some disturbing numbers in the latest data," said School Board member Dave Foster.
MOST VEXING to school officials has been the performance in math classes of Black and Latino students — an area where they had been making some of their greatest strides earlier this decade.
While 65 percent of white students pass geometry by the end of ninth grade with a C or better, only 15 percent of black students accomplished that last year. The gap has actually increased for black students to 50 percentage points from 43 percentage points two years ago.
The percentage of Latino students passing algebra by the end of eighth grade decreased last year from 25 to 22, while white percentages rose modestly from 73 to 75.
Superintendent Smith said that although the gap has expanded in many target areas, this was mainly because of better performances by white students rather than a drop in minority results.
"The gap is still there, but sometimes [only looking at the gap] masks the increasing minority scores we are experiencing," Smith added.
The graduation rates of minority students have also slipped over the past three years. The number of black students graduating has dropped to 86 percent last year, from 96 percent in 2003-04. Approximately 86 percent of Hispanic students have graduated from Arlington high schools each of the past three years, compared to 98 percent of white students.
School officials said they were proud of the fact that minority students in second grade were nearly reading at the same level as their white counterparts. Ninety-one percent of Latino students were reading at grade level, compared to 97 percent of white students.
Yet the trend does not hold as the students move into middle school. While 91 percent of white sixth-graders read on grade level, the number for Latinos and blacks both plummeted down to 43 percent.
Smith called the statistic "troubling" and added that the school system does not have a good answer as to why minority reading levels drop off in middle school.
The new data proves that schools need to place greater emphasis on reading instruction in the classroom and has to ensure that teachers are better trained to teach reading fundamentals, School Board Chair Mary Hynes said.
In recent years the school system has put a greater emphasis on getting students to take more rigorous classes. Last week officials announced that 10 percent more students last year took an Advanced Placement test.
MINORITY STUDENTS ENROLLED in advanced courses have been doing quite well. Ninety-five percent of those enrolled are passing, nearly an identical rate to white students. But only 23 percent of both black and Latino students are taking advanced classes, compared to 64 percent of white pupils.
"It’s a great sign that those taking the classes are succeeding," said School Board member Ed Fendley. "But we have to work even harder to encourage kids in these groups and bring them into challenging courses."
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.
"It’s so important for these students to get the extra support at school, because they don’t always get it at home," said Veronica Covarrubias, a guidance counselor at Wakefield High School.
Both candidates for Arlington School Board have made raising minority scores one of the centerpieces of their campaigns.
Sally Baird, endorsed by the Democrats, has said that the best way to close the gap in future years is to ensure that all minority and at-risk students have access to quality pre-school opportunities.
She also emphasizes that there needs to be a better outreach program to parents so that they become more engaged in their children’s education.
"The earlier we get parents involved, the better chance their kids have of succeeding," Baird added.
Espenoza — who is running as an Independent and would become the first Latino School Board member in Arlington — said the school system needs to spend more time and resources identifying students who are struggling in school.
She has called for an expanded after-school-tutoring program, and would like to see more local organizations and businesses partner with the minority students and serve as mentors.
Espenoza said it is also imperative to close "the expectation gap," and get immigrant parents more involved in the school system.
"If you don’t have parental support at home, doors get closed and students don’t have every educational opportunities," she said.