By Nicholas von Wettberg
At the Davis School Board meeting on Thursday night, Davis Joint Unified School District (DJUSD) Superintendent Dr. John Bowes said that, heading into the current school year, one of the district’s three major goals was to focus on the achievement and opportunity gap.
Efforts gained steam in January, when the school board made closing the achievement and opportunity gap a top priority.
Bowes, who took over the position three months ago, said the task is a challenge – not just for local districts, but for others throughout the state and the country.
“And we’re committed here in the Davis Joint Unified School District to try and do everything we can to close the achievement and opportunity gap,” said Bowes, sitting at the dais alongside the five trustees and one high school representative.
For reference, a timeline of past updates was provided.
Beginning in March, board members heard a summary on the actions, services, and information about programs aimed at closing the achievement/opportunity gap, along with ways of monitoring growth and meeting goals of the Local Control Accountability Plan (LCAP).
The following month, various district administrators presented a report on specific services at two elementary schools, Birch Lane and Marguerite Montgomery.
Some programs making strides in supporting the needs of low-income and English Learner students – at the junior high level – were highlighted on May 5, with the lens focused on the AVID (Advancement Via Individual Determination) and Bridge programs at Frances Harper Junior High School.
Two weeks later, trustees were presented with an update on services at Davis Senior High School.
Fast-forward to the school board meeting, on September 1, for an update on the district’s various preschool programs.
With the results of the spring tests, the next step in the process is considering the data, and targeting areas of support.
On Thursday evening, DJUSD Associate Superintendent Dr. Clark Bryant went through the presentation goals: sharing national trends, looking at themes brought up in past meetings, and documenting the progress of current actions/services.
Bryant began his report with some background on what he called “the core of our work,” in terms of the district’s efforts at closing the achievement and opportunity gap.
“When we think about what brings teachers to school every day and what inspires board members to serve on boards, it’s about making sure that we’re providing an appropriate education for all students, one where they have access to quality schools, access to quality teachers, access to quality programs and that they’re learning,” Bryant said. “I know as I talk with staff around the district, when I talk with administrators and teachers this is what drives them.”
In the graphic presented via PowerPoint, the outside circle represented how the district was going about closing the achievement gap.
Appropriate intervention at school sites is one way, according to Bryant.
Another is the use of early indicators, as well as, paying close attention to struggling students.
Addressing social-emotional needs like the connection between teacher and student is also important, Bryant said, leading to learning environments where success is more likely.
He cited, as an example, an exercise performed at a recent school event – teachers identifying students that inspire them to come to work.
As for the participants in the process of closing the achievement gap, Bryant said, “it’s everybody, it’s all of us. We need to do this as a community.”
He added: “It’s going to be teachers, administrators, board members, community members, students, parents, everybody engaging in student learning and making sure that we’re working to provide those opportunities for kids.”
African American and Latino students, and those from low-income families, historically are the kids most in need of opportunities for learning.
Bryant said that gaps are seen, using a variety of indicators, from school connectedness and academic scores to ways parents and families can engage with the system.
“When we focus on how to bridge those gaps that’s where we’ll begin to see support for those children and see more success for them,” he said.
When looking at larger mechanisms for measuring progress, like the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) fourth grade reading test data for free and reduced lunch kids, the gap remains wide between scores of eligible and not-eligible students (district numbers were unavailable).
In fact, when comparing the scale’s scores from 2009 to 2015, there is no change across the board from that demographic, which Bryant says, “continues to reinforce the importance of the work we must be doing.”
Between 2009 and 2015, there was a jump in math scores for eighth grade free and reduced lunch-eligible students, but the gain was widened by the increase for not-eligible eighth graders.
“This is actually a trend I keep coming across,” Bryant said. “Where there’s gains within each groups there’s actually a widening of the achievement gap so that’s something we need to be cognizant of as well.”
At the board meeting on September 15, results of spring tests were presented.
During the question and comment section of that discussion, trustees had requested more information – in the form of data – about achievement levels in English and math, and their relationship to students’ parents’ education levels.
Kids of parents who did not complete high school made up the lowest percentage of district students meeting or exceeding standards on English Language Arts (ELA).
According to the spring test results, from the 2014-15 school year, just over a quarter (28 percent) of all DJUSD students whose parents did not graduate from high school met or exceeded standards in the ELA test.
For the 2015-16 school year, the ELA test numbers were worse – only 19 percent of district students of parents with no high school diploma met or exceeded standards.
Targeting resources and making sure that the needs of students of parents with no high school diploma are met is an interesting situation, according to Bryant, who said, “As a university town we have some families with a higher education that may not be having the same reflection of their income at this point so some graduate students may be influencing this data in one way or another. And so we want to make sure that we’re digging deeper and deeper in to these numbers and making sure that we’ll understand them.”
In math, the bar is set even lower for the district.
Seventeen percent of kids in that particular demographic met or exceeded standards on math, according to the 2014-15 test scores.
The math numbers fell some more for last year’s scores, down to 14 percent.
State numbers, for the demographic, are at 18 percent.
Districts are able to monitor college readiness of students through A-G Completion Rates.
When looking at the percentage of DJUSD graduates that met UC/CSU entrance requirements, the numbers are highest for Asian and white students (both at 81 percent). However the most recent percentages for African American students climbed about 25 percent, from 50 percent in 2013-14 to 76 percent for the 2014-15 school year.
That climb, Bryant says, is a result of the district’s low African American student enrollment.
The categories of low-income students and English learners both struggled meeting the requirements.
For kids of low-income households, the percentages show a downward trend, going from 47 percent in 2012-13 to 45 percent for the 2013-14 school year and 39 percent for 2014-15.
Out of all district students, English learners experience the most difficulty meeting UC/CSU entrance requirements.
The disparity between that demographic and others is another example of the gap that exists in the district.
The percentage of low-income students meeting requirements for the 2012-13 school year was 15 percent.
The next year, the number dipped to 11 percent, only to increase two percentage points (up to 13 percent) for 2014-15.
In response to the information provided, Bryant said he would “pull this piece out and address in a separate context because when we think of it in terms of A-G Completion in order for a student to be identified as an English learner, part of that is that they are still completing some of those early English language classes or some of the other high school diploma tracked types of classes.”
He added: “And so for students that become reclassified, could be a piece of this, we’re monitoring the reclassification rates as well and seeing how students that have been supported through an English language support program are being more successful with A-G Completion rates.”
With such a complex task at hand, the district has devised a “hierarchy,” or process by which decisions on the issue are made.
Along with providing students an exemplary education and the social-emotional support they deserve, the board has also made it a priority to closing the achievement and opportunity gap.
Included in the district’s strategic plan are efforts for professional growth, technology infrastructure, assessment system, student goals, and recruit and retain employees.
At that point, the district looks at its LCAP, taking into account state priorities, district LCAP goals, and advisories.
Work is then begun on site level plans, action plans and services.
Trustee Tom Adams was the first to comment on the presentation report, suggesting that, in order to ensure standards are met by third grade, there should be special attention paid to them beforehand.
He also took issue with long-term trends on high school graduation rates of low-income students, which he said is going down.
“So it seems like we’re missing the mark here in terms of what kind of services we’re providing for these kids and we’re not getting our programs lined up to help them, whether it be early or at the end, and it just seems to me that’s our big persistent problem of achievement in all of this,” Adams said.
Board Member Barbara Archer brought up the district’s special achievement gap task force, from 2007.
Archer said that, eventually, the task force made 11 recommendations to the district, and was curious about what action had been taken, adding that “knowing our history” is a key piece to the equation.
Bryant said the Academic Center at Davis Senior High School, and the presence of English learner specialists was a result of the work done by the group.
“And I think that making our decisions on priorities should be data-driven,” she said. “In what schools is the achievement gap most prevalent? I mean, I could make some assumptions but I don’t know.”
A detailed summary on the various presentations from the past half year was something Trustee Archer felt could be helpful.
“Because for instance I don’t have it in my head, how many kids does AVID serve in the school district and what’s their data on those students meeting A through G requirements for instance? Or what’s their data on those students and how they perform on our testing? Where has PBIS (Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports) been piloted? I know it’s been at Birch, has it been at other places? How has this affected testing, if at all?”
Archer believes that recommendations based on data and tracking the actions to ensure student success is a crucial strategy.
She made note of the low connectedness scores from grade 9 district students, the importance of a good transition into grade 10, and data showing that kids classified as low economic status rarely take electives.
Trustee Susan Lovenburg needed clarification, and asked Archer if she was concerned about electives or did she mean the extracurricular, co-curricular aspect of being involved in schools.
Echoing Archer’s comments, Board Member Alan Fernandes said there is a need for a guide or resource that makes the information and data accessible all at once.
“We’re getting a strong picture here, but I still don’t feel like I can discern what measures we’re going to be taking that meet with each population we’re trying to improve and overall the goal is everyone below standards to get them above standard,” Fernandes said. “And that’s the other thing. Are we talking about these standards? Are we talking about connectedness?”
Fernandes added: “It would be useful for me if you could somehow start to merge the various data points together so we could get a clearer picture of what we’re looking at.”
An achievement gap update will be presented at the board meeting on Thursday, November 3.