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Board Attempts to Narrow Achievement Gap

achievement-gapBy Nicholas von Wettberg

Thursday night’s Davis School Board meeting inside the Community Chambers ran longer than usual, hitting the four-hour mark.

The extra time, however, was spent thriftily on the topic of narrowing achievement/opportunity levels for English language learner students.

In fact, as achievement gap presentations go – and the board has been hearing them regularly for the past nine months – the report delivered by Davis Joint Unified School District (DJUSD) staff, rife with a “deep data dive” on progress over a ten-year span, was perhaps its most telling yet to date.

Prior to the presentation, DJUSD Superintendent Dr. John Bowes said that turning the data into information helps “inform our decisions into good work for our students and the long-term English learner program.”

Bowes cited the process as a way to focus on the three goals he and his staff made for the district before the start of the school year, which are concentrating on the social and emotional needs of every student, ensuring quality programs for all students, and closing the achievement and opportunity gaps.

He also mentioned that, at the conclusion of the presentation, there would be recommendations in alignment with the fourth goal of the strategic plan, revolving around the student setting of social and academic goals to improve school performance.

Some members of the Local Control Accountability Plan (LCAP) Advisory Committee attended the meeting, at the invite of district staff.

“We’d like to recognize them and thank them not just for being here tonight but for their longer-term commitment to help ensure that the ‘local’ is really put into Local Control Accountability Plan,” said Bowes, who, during last month’s achievement gap discussion, suggested a more vivid picture be painted on the issue.

“At our board meeting in October I mentioned that we’d like to take a look at a particular program and the intersectionality of data around that and model a process that we can replicate as a board, as a district office, and at school sites, advisory committees could also use,” Bowes said.

The amount of kids in the English language long-term learners’ group totals 78 students, a cohort which accounts for less than one percent of all district enrollment.

According to Bowes, the small sample size was chosen not only for presentation’s sake, but also because of its function as a template for future recommendations, directly impacting learning needs of those that fall under the achievement gap category.

The superintendent informed the board that, in December, he and the staff are planning to scale up the presentation on English language learners, and added that he would be interested in hearing their thoughts on it later in the meeting.

Referencing a point brought up earlier in the meeting by Associate Superintendent Bruce Colby – who compared the current budget funding level to that of pre-recession days – Bowes said that was also when the district formed an Achievement Gap Task Force.

The data, analysis and conclusions as a result of the study, which took place from December 2006 to May 2007, was retrieved at the behest of the board, and confirmed that, much like now, an achievement and opportunity gap existed, affecting kids in the demographics of African American, Latino, low social-economic status (SES), and English learners, primarily of Spanish-speaking households.

Recommendations for all three levels of schooling (elementary, junior and senior high) made by the task force were addressed by Bowes, who said the first dealt with professional growth development, more specifically, to “recruit more staff from underrepresented groups.”

Current district numbers show no gains in hiring diversity, which Bowes linked in a roundabout way to the 50 or 60 layoffs that took place as a result of the economic downturn.

At the elementary school level, he said there have been some strides made on the professional growth front, in terms of training for unconscious bias, and the implementation of EL training all the way to the bi-lingual program at Montgomery.

There were fewer recommendations made by the task force on the junior high level, with only one notable checkmark – to fund AVID (Advancement Via Individual Determination) classes at each junior high school.

In 2007, the task force saw the need for improving learning resources at the high school level and recommended an EL Learning Center, which was achieved through the Davis Senior High School Academic Center.

The Achievement Gap Task Force, which was comprised of appointed members, community volunteers, ex-officio members, and school board liaisons, recommended additional EL and special education aides at King High School, which, at the time, was also in need of a solid home.

A permanent site was eventually found later that year for the school that currently employs a full-time paraprofessional.

The district can say yes to progress in broadening course options for its students – another recommendation – through curriculum such as its Race and Social Justice course.

Presenting the achievement gap report, for the evening, were DJUSD Associate Superintendent Dr. Clark Bryant, Manager of English Learner Programs Ricardo Perez, Coordinator of School Climate Activities Kate Snow and Director of Curriculum Assessment & Learning Troy Allen.

As far as identifying the type of student on the wrong side of the achievement and opportunity gap, the options are limited.

Perez, in his opening comments, mapped out the steps for English learners, beginning with the application process for incoming kindergartners, or new district students, which, in a home language survey, asks parents if a language other than English is spoken.

If the answer is yes then the child will be administered the CELDT (California English Language Development Test).

“What this test helps us determine is basically the proficiency areas of the student in either the listening, speaking, reading, and writing,” said Perez. “Furthermore, what it does also, it helps us really identify their English language development and specifically what kind of support we’re going to provide the student.”

English learners enter the program at various stages of development: beginning, early intermediate, intermediate, early advanced and advanced.

“One of our primary goals, as far as my support and my staff and the teachers as well, is to make sure that we support the students throughout their development in English so that they can in five to six years reach proficiency level. And what we want to do with that is, once they become proficient in English, they go through a reclassification process, we call it.”

Called in the report “a highly heterogeneous group of students,” English learners, ideally, are able to show improvement, progressing over time from one classification level to the next.

The ones showing no progress, as noted by Perez, are the ones being targeted in the achievement gap presentation.

Some of the identifying factors of English learners who are “at-risk” of becoming long-term learners include kids in grades 3-12, those enrolled at least four years, who scored at intermediate on the CELDT and did not meet the standards on the CAASPP ELA (California Assessment of Student Performance and Progress for English Language Arts).

The identity of a long-term English learner (LTEL) is a student in grades 6-12, who has been enrolled six or more years, is either at the same level or below on the CELDT for two or more years, and does not meet the standards on the CAASPP English Language Arts evaluation.

During the section of the report entitled, “Needs of Long-Term English Learners,” Perez said that he and his staff are well aware of the emotional hurdles experienced by LTELs, who often function just enough to get along but struggle to the point where they are unable to be reclassified.

The development of academic and content specific language is crucial to the overall growth of long-term English learners, and can contribute to a variety of positive outcomes, both in the classroom, learning-wise and through a greater sense of connectedness – with teachers and counselors, and socially.

According to the report, it takes somewhere between five to seven years for a student to gain proficiency in a second language.

Perez said that it is important for staff to understand that, once long-term English learners reach a level of proficiency and they understand the academic language, that does not equate to their being fluent with content-specific subject knowledge of the academic language.

Circling back on the data to the 2015-16 batch of DJUSD long-term English-language learners, not surprisingly, well over half were high school students, nine were from elementary, and 26 came from junior high.

The tenth grade had the most LTELs out of the cohort, with a total of 22, but the number of seventh graders in the program (15) is evidence, considering the identification factors, that kids are not getting the traction early on in the process necessary for advancement.

Of the 78 long-term English learners, 58 students, or three-fourths of them, are listed as Hispanic, while the Asian demographic accounts for the remainder, with 15 kids.

Those numbers are in sync with percentages of LTELs graphed on cohort home language, which are 63 percent Spanish and 12 percent English.

When taking socio-economic status (SES) into account, of the 78 students, 63 of them are labeled socioeconomically disadvantaged, translating to 82 percent of the total.

Parent education levels are usually deciding factors of some sort when discussing data around achievement gap students.

In the case of district long-term English learners, there were 18 parents who did not graduate from high school, 24 parents that did graduate from high school, seven with college experience or an associate degree, with 15 college graduates and 10 parents with graduate school experience or post-grad training.

Bryant said that “an intergenerational approach to helping families to make those connections across that spectrum is an important component of what we need to do to support them.”

Data on language proficiency revealed that one-sixth, or 18 percent of the LTEL cohort, became reclassified as fluent.

As for CELDT writing scores, there were 28 students who scored advanced (36 percent), 31 early advanced (40 percent), 11 intermediate (14 percent), three early intermediate (4 percent), two beginner (3 percent), and three with no writing test results (4 percent).

Writing evaluations in the CAASPP ELA were graphed, using the LTEL cohort, and nearly all of the eighth graders tested at below standard.

Results were not as promising, according to Perez, for those tests, because of the academic language and grade-level standards involved.

He said it is something they need to address and improve, as they must also do in the overall area of English language arts.

Some of the ways the district believes it can meet the needs of long-term English learners is data-driven decision making, English Language Development (ELD) standards and optimum instructional practices, capacity building, coherence, and focus to reach reclassification.

Following the presentation, as a part of an action/discussion item on the agenda, each board member was given the opportunity for comments and questions.

Leading off the evening was trustee Susan Lovenburg, who called the report “impressive work” and echoed a comment made earlier in the presentation by Troy Allen, that “it built a moral imperative around addressing these situations.”

Lovenburg gave credit to Superintendent Bowes for suggesting the deep data dive on a particular group of students, saying it “allowed the faces to emerge through the data…It helps us get a real grasp of who these kids are and how we’re serving them currently and what more we can do but I think you know each and every one and the rest of our system does too.”

After a reminder that the district has spent a lot of money over the years on professional development, Lovenburg inquired about the follow-up process for surveys given to teachers asking them about their experiences and preferences in training.

Bryant said an evaluation form goes out after each workshop, for feedback on them, along with the surveys given out during the course of the year.

In regard to repeated surveys, Troy Allen said, “What was really common there was that people didn’t agree. That’s what it came down to. Some people like to do it on their contract day… so what we’re really trying to do is create some redundant experiences.”

Lovenburg added: “The space that I’m in especially when talking about English language acquisition is that I would like people going to the county office of ed that Carter mentioned but also having those people come back and give instruction during staff meetings so that if people never sign up for professional development they are still getting access to at least the broad strokes. But then offering it after school Saturday series and through the county office of ed so that there’s just no escaping it.”

Board member Alan Fernandes lauded the presentation, feeling that “we are honing in on where to really get the most leverage on doing what we all want to do, which is closing the opportunity achievement gap.”

In regard to data on language proficiency and the percentage of the cohort that became English fluent, Fernandes mentioned that 18 percent of those students, when retested, were reclassified.

Noting that 21 percent of long-term English learners tested at the intermediate level and 38 percent of them retested into early advanced, Fernandes said the numbers are limited because it is only a one-year snapshot.

“That number (18 percent) doesn’t really dig in and say ‘how many years were they receiving whatever services they were in our district, right?’” said Fernandes. “Another way of looking at it is that, in a given year, you could say that over 68 percent or more are early advanced. Is that right?”

Ricardo Perez responded yes to his question and said that, as far as the 18 percent of students becoming reclassified, there is encouragement in the number.

“As far as this slide really helps us understand that when we’re looking at language proficiency in a given year it just gives us an understanding of where students have tested that year,” said Perez. “What I’m looking at here is the fact that we have a high concentration of long-term English learners achieving early advanced to advanced.”

Perez added: “So this helps me understand when I look at this data and other districts most of our long-term English learners really flat-line at intermediate level and are not able to get out of that, thus the term flatling, but here… what comes to my mind are grades getting into the way?”

Fernandes said he sees both sides of the coin, working with such a small sample size, and that he would like to get a better sense of how the numbers progress over time, to see how the kids and program are advancing.

“I mean that’s really, if you peel this presentation back the big takeaway for me is this is the first time, honestly, I’ve looked at the ‘07 report recommendations,” he said. “We line-itemed and delineated each of the recommendations and then we crosscheck that with ten years later what have we done. So that to me is how you get outcomes and how you focus on what matters.”

Trustee Barbara Archer called the presentation “a great template for looking at each of our groups.”

After taking a look at the task force report, she realized how much potential there was with a number of proposed recommendations.

About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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