By Nicholas von Wettberg
When addressing ways of closing the student achievement gap, there is the constant reminder that no singular program or curriculum exists, which would fix longtime disparities in learning opportunities between students based on factors of class and race.
The long-term goal for California is to narrow the divide as much as possible, with districts now in charge of implementing the process – piece by piece – emphasizing themes of collaborative structure and shared leadership.
Closing the achievement gap has been a top priority for the Davis Joint Unified School District (DJUSD) Board of Education, whose recent agenda is to hear information about its programs, and how they meet the goals of their own Local Control Accountability Plan (LCAP).
During last month’s meeting, the Board received a report on the services and actions of two elementary schools in the district, Birch Lane and Marguerite Montgomery.
Trustees heard an information presentation on Thursday, May 5, about a pair of programs (AVID & Bridge) aimed at supporting the needs of low-income students and English Learners at Frances Harper Junior High School.
The AVID (Advancement Via Individual Determination) program, focused at closing the achievement gap, is also offered at three other district junior high schools: Ralph Waldo Emerson, Da Vinci Charter Academy and Oliver Wendell Holmes.
Associate Superintendent Clark Bryant briefed the Board on the progress of the programs, saying, that with AVID at Emerson “students receive support in strategic academic areas to help create a more equitable school experience.”
Along with the extra strategies students receive before and during academic instruction, tutoring also plays a role, through the volunteering of local UC Davis students, who Bryant said “help facilitate and guide students who may be struggling, and this allows students to develop interpersonal ways to resolve their academic points of confusion with support of tutors and their peers.”
Students two grades below the average reading level comprise an AVID program (Read 180) at Holmes, with before and after assessment. There is also a math clinic, which is in place for students struggling in some of their Common Core 3 math classes, and a mentorship program, according to Bryant.
Over one quarter (26%) of the total enrollment (620) at Harper is free and reduced lunch students. The amount of English Learners (EL) has been identified at 50.
Harper Principal Kerin Kelleher presented the report to the Board on the schools AVID and Bridge programs.
Accompanying her at the table was Bridge coordinator Liza Lopez and teachers Nick Gallaudet and Jennifer Fung, who is the AVID coordinator.
Now in her 36th year as an educator, Kelleher provided a few basic ways that Harper is able to address the achievement gap.
“One thing might be as simple as saying we have changed our bell schedule this year to be sure that students have a nutrition break after period one,” Kelleher said, reminding the Board that the students are between the ages of 12 and 15. “And we feed, literally, about 250 students in our SNS program right at the beginning of the day which is of course huge for them.”
Kelleher gained experience working as an AVID teacher in the San Diego Unified School District in the late 1980s.
The AVID program did not make its way to Harper until 2008, which was the same year the Bridge program began there.
Kelleher arrived at Harper only three years ago, but says that since the program got going there have been as many as nine faculty members, per summer, who have attended summer institutes for training.
“If you think about a school of only 620 kids, up to nine teachers spending summertime together planning,” said Kelleher. “That’s a third of the staff.”
She then asked trustees to take a look at the people sitting alongside her and notice how much younger they are.
“They are what is the future of what’s ahead for kids, and I thank God I’m with them,” said Kelleher. “AVID and Bridge are game changers for the students that we work with in Davis.”
Kelleher was reminded of a piece of advice given by her friend Derek Brothers, who said that her biggest challenge when taking over the reins as principal would be “taking a look at Harper’s community and trying to find a way to work with the disparity in terms of income and where kids, what do they bring to the table because we have two extremes at Harper and its amazing at how wonderfully it works.”
The official mission of AVID, which has been around for over 30 years, is to close the achievement gap by preparing all students for college and other post secondary opportunities.
Recruitment into the program, at Harper, is a yearlong process, and in order to be considered for selection, applicants must meet a majority of the criteria.
They have to come from a low-income household, be the first generation in their immediate family to attend college, be part of group historically underrepresented in four year colleges, and have a special circumstance that affected them growing up.
In the PowerPoint presentation, some of the examples of experiences that fall under the category are the death of a parent, being placed in foster care, and having gone through a parents’ divorce.
“We have children that have been adopted, we have kids on 504’s,” Gallaudet said. “What we really look for are the kids that have that determination and want to pursue a college education and need a little extra support in order to do that.”
Divided between two sections, there are a total of 49 students in AVID, with nearly half receiving a free or reduced lunch.
Over two-thirds of the students in the program are of minorities (Hispanic/Latino, African American, Asian) and almost half are reclassified fluent English proficient (R-FEP) students.
As for the educational level of parents of AVID students, 43 percent do not have a college degree.
“These students who are with us, they’re really motivated to go to college but they might not have that at-home support to know how to get there, so that’s what we hope to provide” Fung said.
The structure of the AVID class is based on a two-pronged approach, with one aspect placed on academic support (tutorials, critical reading strategies & writing support, study skills & test taking prep, A-G requirements and course selection, PSAT & SBAC practice and organization).
Another classroom emphasis is on college research, which includes learning how to write letters to colleges, choosing a major, figuring out application requirements, and knowing what to say when giving a personal statement.
One of the goals of the Board in holding its monthly discussion on the achievement gap is to hear what programs in the district are effective, and build off that positive impact.
According to the presentation, students in AVID report feelings of connectedness with school, teachers, and classmates.
“We really build a lot of community,” said Fung. “We start in the classroom and we talk a lot about when we’re trying to do something that’s really hard like getting in to college, it’s easier when we’re working together and we stay focused together.”
They also experience increased levels of academic confidence and self-advocacy, which Fung says “is reported by our other content area teachers, English teachers, Social Studies teachers have told us that when our kids fall behind they have the tools to bounce back.”
That kind of confidence exuded by students makes attending college appear more like a foregone conclusion rather than a what-if.
Engagement in the classroom is always encouraged, and, as a result AVID students develop skills of active learning.
Fung reasoned that one of the ways to address the achievement gap is focusing on A-G requirements, which for 9th graders covers a wide swath of choices.
“At a maximum students can be in five and a half classes towards the 15 A-G requirements that there are, and our AVID 9 students, 20 out of 28 of them are taking between three and a half and four and a half A-G required classes,” Fung said.
Some AVID students are enrolled in demanding courses, like Biology, Humanities and advance Math.
After a two-year tracking period (from 7th to 9th grade), nearly three-fourths of those AVID students showed improvements in their cumulative grade point average.
Lopez, whose focus is at Harper, said the Davis Bridge program, as a whole, is dedicated to improving the academic achievement of low-income students, particularly students that come from low-income Spanish-speaking households.
To better provide students the tools they need for success, UC Davis work-study undergraduate students serve as Bridge tutors, thus assuming the de facto role of mentor.
“The relationship between our tutors and students is one of the most important components of our program,” said Lopez. “And our tutors are specifically selected for our students with our students needs in mind.”
Lopez added: “And so our tutors share a very similar background and experiences as their student that they’re working with. They help validate their students’ culture and background and they’re really great role models and a great support system for their student.”
Just like with AVID, there is a set of criteria outlined for student enrollment in the Bridge program, which is intended for Title 1 students, those classified as EL or R-FEP, low academic achievers, low-income students, and kids recommended by a teacher, counselor or administrator.
The demographics of Harper students, in 7th Grade (32), 8th Grade (36), and 9th Grade (28), served through the program reveal a predominantly Latin and male enrollment.
“This is important when we look at…the disparity in educational performance between male and female so this is something that Bridge program is also helping to address,” said Lopez.
As for the positive impact the Bridge program has had on closing the achievement gap, students report a greater connectedness to the school, enhanced self-confidence and self-advocacy, and an increased ability to overcome setbacks, which all contribute to making the transition to high school easier.
After a two-year tracking period, 74 percent of Bridge students showed improvements in their cumulative grade point average.
Part of their weekly reflection periods includes Bridge students asked to rate on a scale of 1 to 10 their motivation to improve grades and positive attitude toward school and Bridge.
Ninth graders on an average placed themselves at a 9.1, while eighth graders placed themselves at 9.7. Scores were similar when Bridge students were asked about self-advocacy and connectedness.
When asked about feelings of connectedness, only 67 percent of students answered similarly in the YouthTruth Survey, according to Lopez.
Transitions are emphasized as another important part of the program, like the first day of junior high, as is communication and collaboration between sites and departments, course selection, and the AVID & Bridge College and Career Readiness Night.
Following the information presentation, the Board members had the opportunity to discuss, comment, or ask questions.
Trustee Barbara Archer started things off, asking if there were any kids enrolled in both the AVID and Bridge program, to which the answer was yes, but only a small number.
Archer then wondered how they reach out to students falling under particular categories, such as low academic achievers, or low SES.
“They are very different in some ways, the two programs,” Kelleher said. “Bridge is again, number one, receiving names from Montgomery, generally. We kind of know who were getting as incoming seventh…I can straight up tell you we have a huge waiting list for the after school program at all times and families are calling us too requesting it because they have the great experience of what’s happened at Montgomery already.”
AVID, on the other hand, is an elective program dedicated to finding kids who want to break the cycle of educational poverty, and be the first in their immediate family to attend college.
One of the foundational concepts of AVID is finding students who are good learners, and test above average but struggle in the classroom because of their overall language skills, and lack of shared experiences.
“They didn’t have the knowledge, as Jen mentioned, of what does it take to get to college, like how do you even do that?” Kelleher explained. “What is a college like, what do you eat at a college, what’s a room like there? They didn’t have their family members to walk them around.”
In relationship to the Board’s concern over the achievement gap, Trustee Archer cited numbers that show 60 percent of the district’s Latino students’ are not meeting A-G requirements, begging the need for perhaps further expansion of programs like AVID and Bridge.
Kelleher said the methods involved are good teaching strategies – literacy strategies, some more detailed than others.
“We have blue tape up on front of the white boards of every classroom that identifies what assignments are due when they’re coming up,” she said. “Something as simple as that is a game-changer for kids.”
Trustee Susan Lovenburg wanted some clarification about there being a wait list and a group of kids who fit the profile that weren’t being served.
Gallaudet said there are seven or eight kids on the wait list for students going in to 9th Grade.
“If you were to add those to our current class, I think we have officially accepted 25 kids, so if we were to add all of those in the class size would just be too big,” he said. “The kids on the wait list, we’re on the fence about, they maybe didn’t show that determination we wanted to see, maybe they got a good recommendation and their grades are solid but the determination might not be where it needs to be.”