Achievement gap in Mesa County is narrowing for some, but still there
From the time he started work in a restaurant at age 12, Mathew Zamora knew he had to graduate high school.
His co-workers told similar stories of dropping out when drugs or alcohol or life got in the way. Grades were never much of a topic in his home, but Zamora knew he wanted more for himself, and an education was the way to get there.
“I wanted to be able to do what I want and not be limited on what I can do,” he said.
He didn’t like school much, though, and ditched class at two high schools before landing at R-5 High School. His oldest brother’s high school graduation re-inspired him to keep going, and he expects to graduate from R-5 in May. Zamora, 17, said his mom, who doesn’t have a high school diploma, is proud of him but withholding most accolades until he receives his diploma.
“She knows I have more to do,” he said.
Zamora’s classmate, Jessica Richie, 17, also jumped hurdles to get to where she is, just a couple months away from graduating. She was raised by her grandfather for part of her childhood while her mother battled mental health problems. Her father left home before that.
“I had to grow up fast. I had to play the mother role” to a younger brother, Richie said.
Balancing homework with a busy home life wasn’t easy, but she said watching her mother struggle made her want a better life for herself. She wants to go to college to become a veterinarian’s assistant or a photographer.
“You have to have the smarts to make good money and get a good job. It’s hard to get out of the socioeconomic situation we’re in,” Richie said.
Zamora and Richie are two examples of local students fighting their way out of the achievement gap, a term given to the national phenomenon of economically disadvantaged, minority and, to a lesser extent, male students reaching proficiency in subjects or graduating from high school less frequently than other students.
Not every student has made the leap out of the gap. The District 51 graduation rate for economically disadvantaged students was 14.3 percentage points lower than the district average of 73.8 percent in 2009. The only group with a lower graduation rate was homeless students, who had a graduation rate of 48.3 percent.
Gaps also exist on Colorado Student Assessment Plan test scores. The percentage of District 51 students receiving free school lunches (those living at or below 130 percent of the poverty level) who scored proficient or better on CSAP math, science, reading or writing tests this year was 25.1 to 31.3 percentage points lower on average than the percentage of students paying full price for school lunches who accomplished that task.
The socioeconomic achievement gap is narrow when it comes to growth in individual CSAP test scores year-over-year in District 51, but it still exists. Because the growth model is only two years old and CSAP tests have been offered in all subjects for a few years, it’s hard to say if the school district is making strides in the right direction or not. The graduation rate gap, though, is on the rise.
The difference between Hispanic and white students’ CSAP scores and the scores of boys and girls are smaller but still fit into the standard definition of the achievement gap. However, Andy Laase, executive director of elementary schools in District 51, said poverty is the greatest indicator of a gap and the other gaps may loop back to socioeconomic status.
“If you check the scores of minorities in poverty versus minorities not in poverty, there’s a gap there, too,” he said.
‘We don’t want to make excuses’
Socioeconomic status can correlate with academic performance, but it’s not a cause itself. And it’s not a reason to fall behind, said District 51 Executive Director of High Schools Bill Larsen.
“What people have a tendency to do in all walks of life is look for a root cause and make it an excuse. We don’t want to make excuses,” Larsen said.
Just because a gap exists doesn’t mean every student fits the mold. Superintendent Steve Schultz said a gap would probably exist any way students were grouped. He believes all students in a group are in different places in their education because of their experiences, not their intelligence, and he doesn’t like people making mass assumptions about any sector of students.
“It bothers me when people say kids in Group X are this or that, because they’re not all this or that,” Schultz said. “Just because they’re in that category doesn’t mean they’re all the same. We need to be careful not to imply just because a student is in this group they can’t achieve. They can.”
The average score of economically disadvantaged students doesn’t represent the performance of each student in that category, but Laase said there are reasons someone from an economically disadvantaged home may struggle more in class, including less access to printed materials and trips to educational places.
“These gaps have nothing to do with intelligence. It has everything to do with experience you bring to the game of learning,” Laase said.
“When you don’t have much income, are you paying rent or buying a book? Going to Denver to the aquarium or buying food? These people care about their children, they just have to make hard choices.”
A Community Needs Assessment performed by a Mesa County group of agencies interested in helping homeless people found families at an economic disadvantage were much more likely to include a family or child in poor health, have trouble affording food or transportation, face discrimination, or live with friends or family or without a home temporarily.
Minorities from other countries can have a special set of struggles, according to Susana Wittrock, district executive director of equality and minority student performance, including the inability to go to a food bank without a Social Security number and facing a language barrier.
Wittrock said part of her job is to convince families that college is attainable for all students. High expectations for students, support, and a sincere belief that every child can learn helps foster that belief, she said.
“If we label kids as unable to achieve, they start to believe it and it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy,” Wittrock said.
Teachers never see which students receive free or reduced meals, so students are not divided that way to receive extra help at school. Some schools are turning around the gap, though, just by helping all students in need of extra learning time.
One of these schools is Orchard Avenue Elementary. Forty-seven percent of Orchard Avenue students received free and reduced meals last year. At the same time, more than 80 percent of Orchard Avenue students that took CSAP tests this spring scored proficient or better on the reading and math tests.
The school received national recognition recently as a Blue Ribbon award winner for working to close the achievement gap. Teacher and intervention specialist Ann Roussin said her school has numerous programs working to close the gap completely, including family nights designed to engage parents in school, a homework club for kids who have troubling getting homework help at home, and a math club for third-grade girls to offer them extra help on the subject.
“We’ve created an environment where parents and students feel welcome,” Roussin said.
Glenda Lucero, coordinator of the school’s gifted and talented program, said the school’s gifted population comes from a variety of backgrounds.
“Everybody can be challenged,” she said.
Orchard Avenue teacher Shawn Hays said “it comes down to having high expectations.” Providing more time focused on subjects students struggle with also helps, according to Cheryl Taylor, principal of Pear Park Elementary, another school that’s worked to increase scores while 72.7 percent of students receive free or reduced meals at school.
Taylor said Pear Park CSAP scores were “atrocious” the first spring the school was open in 2007. There’s still a gap between economically disadvantaged and other students at the school, Taylor said, but it’s half the size it was that first year.
“A lot of that was helping them believe in themselves,” Taylor said.
The school also purchased an online membership to a learning service students can use at home or at a computer at the school, and students are screened as soon as possible for interventions when they fall behind in regular class assessments, according to Pear Park teacher and reading specialist Elaine Fletemeyer. Fletemeyer said the days of accepting that a student was in the gap and going to stay there are over, and the sooner a student receives extra help, the better.
“Where that gap widens is in reading and content materials, whereas in kindergarten and first grade they’re becoming readers that can progress. It gets tougher when you have a second grader who has to build all those foundations again,” she said.
Clifton Elementary School is just beginning a journey to turn around their test scores with the help of federal grant funding. Clifton has the fourth-highest percentage of free and reduced lunch students in the district and some of the lowest CSAP test scores.
Clifton teacher Tobi Golden said the school has students who are homeless, live with a parent or parents struggling to get by, or live in a home with multiple families. The school has opted to help all students with extra math help instead of trying to decide who needs help outside the classroom and who doesn’t.
Teachers traditionally have moved in and out of Clifton quickly, but Golden said the new turnaround effort should help offer kids more stability with their teachers.
“I think we’ll see less turnover. At least on my part, I’m invested in helping these kids,” Golden said.