Working Together to Close the Achievement Gap


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.

Parent engagement

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.

Caring Teachers

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 or follow (and perhaps “Like”) her on Facebook at


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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5 thoughts on “Working Together to Close the Achievement Gap”

  1. Tia Will

    “Parents and the schools must work together as a village to support each child’s growth.”

    I agree completely with this statement. And I would expand upon it. In our society we have tended to segregate individuals by their roles in our society.
    The medical profession is seen as completely separate from the school system, which is separate from the legal system …..
    All too often children and parents are left attempting to integrate appropriate education, mental and physical care for their child while themselves working in a completely different area such as engineering or sales or garbage collection. Many have discounted the notion of a village necessary to raise a child. However, I think that on a systems level ( the achievement gap ) and on an individual level ( the Marsh case) the outcomes of such a segregated approach with every side pointing fingers at the other when there is a bad outcome should be adequate evidence that we need to fundamentally rethink the need for prevention, early integration and coordination of our efforts throughout the life of each child.

    As an obstetrician, I see possibilities from prior to conception and throughout a pregnancy to maximize the health and wellness of the new life.
    Pediatricians are the next step in the help a parent can receive in achieving the healthiest childhood possible.
    Then come the schools with their various disciplines.
    Whether one likes to admit it or not, multiple individuals ( a village ) are indeed involved in the health and wellness of each child.
    I would like to see us take a much more collaborative approach in the care of each child from conception until the point where they have matured to the point where they can be considered autonomous in their own decision making.

    I am very happy to see that a number of the candidates for the school board are taking these issues seriously, posting articles on their ideas and perspectives. I am seeing a well rounded group of concerns focusing on fiscal issues, but also on maintaining and expanding on our variety of teaching programs within the district and continuing to develop means to help each student individually with concrete suggestions, not just lip service.

  2. Davis Progressive

    this is a decent and thoughtful answer from ms sunder, but i think it’s lacking. where is it lacking? one of the things i hear and see over and over again is that people of color in davis feel very visible, very isolated, and at times shunned upon. given that ms sunder is herself a person of color, i’m surprised that there is no recognition of this. she makes no mention of the need for the schools to work with the majority of students to be more accepting of minorities, there is no support system in place, and in my view, i’m very disappointed here. all of the things she mentions are good but without deal with the core issue, i think they go for naught.

    1. TrueBlueDevil

      Isolated, in 2014? I also find it interesting that you believe a largely liberal town is “shunning” people of color.

      Maybe Ms. Sunder does not share your viewpoints on race and feeling “shunned”?

  3. Tia Will


    I know that this is probably not going to be a popular point of view, but I am going to make it anyway. I believe that the identification as a “person of color” is an identification most appropriately made by the person herself. My ex husband was not infrequently misidentified as a minority due to the tone of his skin ( very swarthy). He was adamant that he was “white”. There are some of us who honestly do not care how we are identified. Perhaps this is true of Ms. Sundar. It may simply not have occurred to her to identify as a “person of color”. One would not know without asking her directly which I have not.
    In either event, I do not believe that her ethnic self identification is relevant to her desire to see all students achieve their individual potential.

    1. davisite4

      To me the issue isn’t whether Ms. Sundar sees herself as a person of color or not; that is her personal choice. I think the point is rather that her statement (and, incidentally, the same can be said about the statements of other candidates) that there is essentially nothing said about specifically addressing the needs of persons of color other than addressing some of the concerns of having English as a second language. The candidates all seem to be pretending that if we improve education for all, the racial differences in performance will go away. The literature on implicit biases suggest otherwise, however. We don’t live in a society where people of different races are treated the same for the same performance, and we should not pretend that they do.

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