by Madhavi Sunder
Over the last handful of months, I have sought to educate myself about the challenges that our students and educators face by touring each of the 20 schools in our district—from the special education preschool at Valley Oak and the Davis Parent Nursery School (DPNS), to the nine elementary schools, the four junior highs, the four high schools, including the Davis School for Independent Studies (DSIS) and the Adult Education School. I have met with principals, teachers, and parents in our district, as well as elected officials and education experts in our community. In nearly all of my meetings, I have asked how as a community we can best meet the challenge of closing the achievement gap. Here are some of the keys.
An Inclusive Environment
Our district begins with the premise that all kids, and especially those who struggle, must feel welcome, supported, and connected in their school communities. An inclusive and welcoming climate starts with the front office staff, and extends to the teachers and principals being kind and caring. I hear from families how important it is that they feel their child’s para-educators, counselors, and teachers care about the child learning and succeeding. Small class sizes are crucial to helping teachers to identify each child’s needs and to nurture and support each individual student.
Parents and the schools must work together as a village to support each child’s growth. Parent engagement can be particularly challenging for parents of English language learners and low-income families, who may feel alienated at school from their first years, because of language barriers and/or because they start out feeling that their children are behind other children who attended pre-school.
At Montgomery Elementary, parents are partnering with the UC Davis linguistics department to offer free English and Spanish language classes for parents in the mornings. Such programs bring parents, including non-Native speaking families, onto campus and into the school community. The Family Resource Center at Montgomery also brings non-native speaking parents onto campus. Educators need to communicate with parents (with the help of appropriate translation services) so parents can reinforce at home what the teachers are doing during the day. The new two-way bilingual immersion program in Spanish and English at Montgomery allows non-English speaking parents to volunteer and help in the classroom, increasing their connectedness and feeling of being able to contribute to their own child’s and other children’s education.
Small class sizes
Small class sizes are crucial to helping teachers to identify each child’s needs and to support each individual student. We must train teachers and support differentiated instruction so that all children are being met at their level and learning and achieving. The small learning environment at King High also allows for a more flexible academic program that recognizes the challenges of students who work and support their families. Da Vinci High School and Jr. High help keep students engaged who may have otherwise felt less connected in a traditional classroom setting.
Extended Learning From Preschool to Afterschool
Preschool and Transitional kindergarten play a vital role, helping to ensure that struggling students are not already behind when they start Kindergarten because other children had access to high quality preschool and they did not. Davis was a pioneer in public preschool, opening the district supported DPNS in 1950. DPNS is run as part of our district’s Adult Education program; we knew long ago that educating parents to support and engage in their children’s learning was crucial to supporting children themselves. Today, progressive preschools in Tulsa, Oklahoma are focusing on the same and more, teaching parents professional skills so they may get better and higher paying jobs. Again, these schools recognize that supporting parents means supporting students. I believe that we in Davis can again lead the way in a new wave of thinking about and implementing public preschool, and we have leaders in the field like Amy Duffy and Ross and Janet Thompson within our town from whom we can learn and with whom we can partner.
Extended learning opportunities, such as the Bridge afterschool homework program at Montgomery Elementary and Harper Jr. High, the homework club at Holmes Jr. High, and summer school programs at Davis High School provide longer learning hours and enrichment for kids. Some schools provide social support and mentoring to promote student engagement in school, with the goal for engagement to translate into improved academic achievement.
Early Literacy Programs for All
Another key area is early literacy. We need to ensure that all children are strong readers by the time they finish third grade; from thereon, they will be reading to learn, not learning to read. Last year at Chavez Elementary, the PTA supported push-in reading aides to make sure each child becomes an accomplished reader by third grade. Now the district is supporting reading aides in all third grade classes throughout the district to ensure that all of our third graders are reading at grade level. Two-way bilingual immersion, which allows Spanish speakers to learn to read in their first language, gives confidence to children and helps instill a love of reading. This program can also flip traditional stereotypes and self-perceptions, as English language learners may be the ones to whom English speakers turn to for reading help. Research focuses on how self-perception, implicit bias, and mindset affect student achievement and goals. We must work to counter social and psychological factors that impede achievement.
Hands-on-Learning, Career Technical Education, and Well-Rounded Programs
Showing the real-world relevance of academic work is key to keeping all students more engaged in school. Project based learning and more Career Technical Education (CTE) programs are important to engage different learning needs and styles. As a U.S. Department of Education study on CTE states, CTE classes “provide students with a curriculum that combines integrated academic and technical content and strong employability skills. And they provide work-based learning opportunities that enable students to connect what they are learning to real-life career scenarios and choices.” Partnerships with businesses and foundations are also important, helping kids have access to computers not just at school, but also at home, and providing internship and real world opportunities.
In short, offering a diversity of programs is key to keeping all students, including struggling students, engaged. As Delaine Eastin, former Superintendent for Public Instruction in California says, “For some children, the key is art, for others science, for some it is physical education, and for others it is reading and language arts. There are children who love math, while others want to make music. A well-balanced school and a well-balance curriculum” are the key to all children succeeding.
High Expectations for All
We must have high expectations for all. This requires training for counselors, teachers, and other staff about issues of implicit bias. The Academic Center at the Davis High School employs young tutors from UC Davis who have similar backgrounds to many of the kids in the program. Having role models that look like you and come from similar backgrounds – and who made it to a UC! – can make a world of difference for young high school kids who never had a family member attend college.
Of course, nothing makes a difference in a student’s life like a teacher who cares about them, and takes an active interest in the student’s well-being and future. Smaller classrooms make it easier for teachers to identify needs and support each individual student.
*Madhavi Sunder has been a professor of law at UC Davis since 1999 and is a candidate for the Davis School Board in November 2014. To learn more about her campaign please visit www.sunderforschools.org or follow (and perhaps “Like”) her on Facebook at www.facebook.com/sunderforschoolboard.