Late on Saturday afternoon, Superintendent Winfred Roberson sent an email to the Vanguard and the Enterprise, indicating, “We had a very positive and productive Board Retreat today.” He added, “The Board unanimously agreed upon two areas for ongoing focus and prioritization: 1) Parcel Tax; 2) Opportunity/Access/Achievement Gaps.”
Finally, the board agreed to establish regular office hours to meet with members of the community.
We will focus on the achievement gap which I consider to be, if not THE most important issue facing our schools, part of the most important issue. At the same time and with all due respect to the district and board who I believe sincerely want to tackle this issue, I find myself asking the proverbial question: why is this time different from all other times?
This issue has been at the top of the list since I started covering the board back in 2007 and it was an issue that had probably been discussed for twenty years or more prior to that. Instead of my ruminating on the issue, I am going to put it into the words of the five members of the present school board.
In 2007 the Vanguard interviewed candidate Susan Lovenburg who put “narrowing the achievement gap” as one of her top three educational priorities, along with “offering all students a high quality education” and “maintaining our current educational programs despite decreased funding due to declining enrollment.”
She would then respond to a question on closing the achievement gap: “Low income, Hispanic, African American, and English Language Learners significantly under-perform white and Asian students in our District. This is not a problem unique to Davis, and is not one easily solved, but I do believe we have the means and the ability to change this dynamic in our schools. A thoughtful, concerted, planned approach is necessary. The Achievement Gap Task Force began this work and it should be continued by our administrators, teachers, and paraeducators who work on a daily basis with these children. Again, making sure that all students learn foundational skills seems to be key to closing the gap, and passage of Measure Q will provide funding to assist in this effort.”
Later she added, “Research shows that early intervention offers the best chance of improving the educational success of at-risk children. The Achievement Gap Task Force recommended that the District support submitting a grant proposal to Yolo County First Five Commission that would offer at-risk children entering kindergarten an opportunity for intensive preparation before the start of school.”
In the 2012 election, the Enterprise asked the candidates to “cite what they regard as the most critical factors in narrowing the achievement gap between more affluent students, who tend to score well on standardized tests, and less affluent students, who tend to score lower, as well as the gap between different ethnic subgroups.”
Susan Lovenburg responded, “The district employs math specialists and reading specialists to work with struggling students at all of its elementary and secondary schools, and this approach is showing some results. She also mentioned tutoring programs sponsored by the nonprofit Davis Bridge Foundation that serve English learners and students from lower-income families. Lovenburg also pointed to Davis High School’s Academic Center program, and the addition this year of a transitional kindergarten class at three elementary schools.”
Alan Fernandes, who did not win that election, noted, “Early engagement, similar to intervention. We need to focus on parent education. Second, teachers need to understand and identify culturally with their students. And finally, community involvement — with the broader community taking an interest in children.”
In the Spring of 2014 as he was appointed to fill Nancy Peterson’s seat, Mr. Fernandes would state, “In the first year of the Strategic Plan the work of the district should be focused on the ‘development’ of the four strategies, whereas in subsequent years the ‘implementation and assessment’ of those strategies shall occur. Therefore, the priority of the Strategic Plan should be centered on the ‘development’ of: (1) a professional development system; (2) a plan for physical space and technology infrastructure; (3) a district wide assessment system aligned with the Common Core and designed to improve instruction and close the Achievement Gap; and (4) a system that enables each student to set and pursue academic, social and personal goals. Of these four development priorities, an assessment system that considers the Achievement Gap should be the first priority because of its consistency with the new state requirement to establish a Local Control Accountability Plan pursuant to the Local Control Funding Formula.”
Last fall, we asked all of the candidates to address the achievement gap: Do you believe there is an achievement gap in DJUSD? If not, then how can we make sure to keep it that way? If you believe there is an achievement gap what are concrete steps to address it?
Barbara Archer stated, “Of course there is an achievement gap in Davis. About one quarter of our students are eligible for free and reduced lunch. At some individual school sites, this number is much higher. In a recent Sacramento Bee article on teacher tenure, writer Steve O’Donoghue writes that the ‘number 1 reason low-income students, especially students of color, achieve less than their white peers is family income.’ O’Donoghue further notes that ‘a number of studies have found that the main determinant of student success in school is family income.’
“We must do all we can as a district to support students who are struggling in school whatever the reason. At a district candidate forum on Wednesday night, we asked the district’s climate coordinator about climate trends in the district. She said she had noticed an increase in the number of homeless students. The district has support structures in place for these students, and we should review what is being done to see if we have the means to strengthen those supports.
“We must make sure we have equal access to school and program information, which may mean an increase in translation and interpretation services. We have over 40 languages represented in our district. The district has seen a surge in the need for crisis counseling, and we need more resources in that area. Special education students may fall into the achievement gap. I would like to get more information about the district IEP program and communications about IEP issues and accommodations are handled. We have many good people in the district doing their best with the resources they have, and it will be up to the board to prioritize budget for these resources.”
Tom Adams responded: “Davis does have an achievement gap but it is hidden by the high performance of its students. We should continue to support all students and ensure they reach their full potential. On September 18, the Davis school board received an assessment report and noted the different achievement levels in science. However, in the presentation slides, there was no mention of how student achievement breaks down by ethnicity, race, and gender. This information does not inform how the district is meeting its goal of closing the achievement gap. To address this goal, the board and administration must examine the data from all aspects and see where the achievement gap is. One noticeable trend is that student achievement declines in the upper grades. While at the elementary level 82% are proficient and above and at the middle school level 85% are proficient and above in science, at the high school only 75.5% are proficient and above. Why is there a decrease in student achievement in science and an increase in those students who are basic and below? Who is declining in achievement? The breakdown of student data into ethnicity, race, and gender can be done and has been done. When I was on the site council at Cesar Chavez, we analyzed achievement data by ethnicity and gender and used it as the basis for directing limited resources. I wish to apply my experience at the district level and have a full discussion of student achievement and the gaps that exist. In short, I want to affirm a strategy of the Strategic Plan:
“We will develop and implement a district-wide assessment system aligned with the Common Core Standards to effectively analyze student performance data at more frequent intervals in order to improve instruction, close the achievement gap, and ensure that all students meet or exceed district standards. (emphasis added)”
Madhavi Sunder responded, “Preschool and Transitional kindergarten play a vital role in closing the achievement and 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. I believe that Davis can 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 with whom we can partner.
“Parents and the schools must work together as a village to support each child’s growth. 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 Spanish speaking families, onto campus and into the school community. The Family Resource Center at Montgomery also brings non-Native speaking parents to campus. The new two-way bilingual immersion program 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.
“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. This year 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.
“Extended learning opportunities, such as the Bridge after-school homework program at Montgomery, the homework club at Holmes Jr. High, and summer school programs are other key means for keeping kids learning. Offering a diversity of programs is also key to keeping all students, including struggling students, engaged. A well-balanced school and a well-balance curriculum are the key to all children succeeding.”
Ms. Sunder submitted a full op-ed to the Vanguard, “Working Together to Close the Achievement Gap.”
There is therefore no shortage of thoughts and ideas for how to close the achievement gap. From the discussion, the achievement gap is not going to be closed by addressing a single issue. Based on that, it would seem to be a difficult task to address, but at least it is one that the board agrees is necessary to tackle.
—David M. Greenwald reporting