‘You can’t be colorblind in the classroom anymore’: How Alachua County Public Schools plans to close the achievement gap
Public school system created a plan to help students of color
Ana Escalante, Alligator Contributing Writer | Apr 22, 2019
Parents of students in the Alachua County Public School system say the plan the district created to close the gap between white and black students’ performance isn’t going to work.
In August, the school district implemented an equity plan to close the county’s achievement gap by 2028. The achievement gap is the disparity of academic performance between white students and students of color. Alachua County has the largest achievement gap between white and black students in the state, according to the equity plan.
The school district developed the equity plan after analyzing data that showed the achievement gap. To close the gap, it created a plan with five goals. The goals are to improve student test scores, allow more students to take advanced courses, increase graduation rates, reduce disciplinary action and hire a more diverse staff.
“The equity plan is based upon making sure every student reaches their full potential or has equal opportunity to do so,” said Valerie Freeman, the school district’s educational equity and outreach director.
Parents say some of the goals are unrealistic, may leave some students with disabilities behind and restrict furthering students’ education.
Freeman said that the school board has been trying to increase parent involvement when it comes to addressing concerns over the equity plan. She said the school board switched meeting times to create conversations among officials and parents in the community, but there hasn’t been much response.
“There has been a lot of miscommunication and misinformation. We really want parents to speak to us about what they want to change,” Freeman said. “Sometimes, it’s hard for them to come out, so we have been trying our best to get some sort of dialogue started.”
Local education activist Chanae Jackson wasn’t surprised when she read stories about black students in Alachua County Public Schools underperforming compared to white students, she said.
Jackson only saw a list of suggestions and no real solutions when she said she saw the public school system’s plan to fix the problem.
“I’m sick of the school board patting themselves on the back for doing absolutely nothing,” said Jackson, a mother of three in the school district.
After the school year ends, the school district will be able to gather data to measure the progress of student achievement, amount of students in advanced courses and graduation rates, said Jennie Wise, the executive director of curriculum for Alachua County.
Goal one of the equity plan measures student achievement by a student’s score on the Florida Standards Assessment, a test taken at the end of the year to evaluate if students are ready for the next grade. The scores come out in July.
To move to the next grade level, a student must score a 3 or higher out of 5 on the FSA. The equity plan showed that 45 percent more white students have passing scores in reading and math than black students, according to 2018 results.
School district officials want to close the gap between black and white students by 3 percent each year.
The main concern parents have with using test scores as the indicator of success is that scores don’t take a child’s individual learning style into account.
Patricia High, who has one child in the third grade, said her son’s ADHD diagnosis isn’t considered when taking the FSA. High said she has reached out to the Florida Department of Education, the Alachua County School Board and the Bureau of Exceptional Student Education for extra help, but she has not received a response.
“He’s just going to be another child left behind by the system,” High said.
The second goal focused on increasing the participation of black students in advanced courses.
Wise said the scheduling process for advanced course registration relies on grades, teacher recommendations and pre-Advanced Placement test score reports, which will all be collected and analyzed this summer to show how much improvement has been made.
Universal screening for gifted classes looks at test scores and classroom achievement and has been expanded to seven schools, Wise said.
Although the school year is not over, Wise said increased graduation rates from last year are an estimate of what the school district can expect concerning the district’s third goal.
Compared to 2017, the graduation rate for black students increased by 11 percent. According to a report sent by Jackie Johnson, the district spokesperson, the graduation gap between white and black students closed by 8.7 percent in one year.
Schools like Hawthorne Middle and High School have seen dramatic increases in graduation rates among black students. Compared to the last school year, graduation rates rose from 64.7 percent in 2017 to 100 percent in 2018, according to the graduation report.
Wise said that due to the school’s small senior class with only 31 students, the data may not be the most representative.
School staff meets regularly to go through each student’s report, which includes classes passed or failed, grades and test scores, to address their needs, Wise said. Schools also have graduation counselors that take students step by step through the process to make sure they meet all requirements, such as passing and taking certain classes.
“It’s a lot of people putting eyes on every single student by student and making sure that all of the gaps and missing pieces are put into place,” Wise said.
Jackson has a senior of her own attending F.W. Buchholz High School, located in East Gainesville. Jackson said she believes numbers are inflated and that the school board is gaming the system by not actually preparing students to enter the workforce.
Jackson said her son has told her that teachers said all he had to do was show up to class to earn his diploma.
“Instead of preparing black students and ensuring that they will be successful in the post-secondary setting, the school board is just letting these students graduate,” she said.
The fourth goal of reducing disciplinary action has had the biggest effect on students, Wise said.
The school district aims to reduce out-of-school suspensions for black students by 15 percent. In Fall 2018, there was a 34.6 percent decrease of suspensions. The Alligator could not ask about the drop because Donna Kidwell, the manager of this goal, couldn’t be reached for comment after a reporter reached out about three times through email and seven times through phone calls.
Schools are also reducing the number of days for suspension, according to the district’s equity plan. By eliminating or decreasing the number of times students are written up for non-violent offenses, like tardiness and mobile phone usage, the school district is able to lower these numbers and provide alternative intervention, like counseling, for students.
The last goal in the equity plan is to hire 10 percent more teachers of color each year until they are more representative of the county’s population.
The plan breakdown
Goal one: Improve test scores
The Florida Standards Assessment scores, which measures the achievement of black students, will be released in July.
Goal two: Increase achievement of black students in advanced classes
This won’t be determined until schedules are finalized this summer.
Goal three: Increase graduation rates
Eleven percent more black students graduated in 2018.
Goal four: Reduce disciplinary action
Data shows that the number of suspensions has gone down by 34.6 percent as of Fall 2018.
Goal five: Hire more diverse staff
Data shows that there have been fewer applications for teaching positions.
Kevin Purvis, the Assistant Superintendent of Human Resources, said the district’s black employees include 11 percent of teachers, 23 percent of assistant principals and 28 percent of principals.
Thirty-four percent of students in the school district are black, according to the equity plan.
Since last year, there has been a decline in black applicants for teaching positions, Purvis said. Differing factors include lack of incentives, an uncompetitive salary and the district’s location.
The school district has been trying to combat this through different tactics like establishing ties with historically black colleges and universities as well as attending more job fairs to recruit applicants, Purvis said.
“Our approach was to get out and really target and recruit black and all qualified teachers that we can get,” Purvis said.
Jennifer Wade, a mother of three, said there is a lack of accountability from the school board when teachers handle situations.
On Dec. 11, a teacher at the Duval Early Learning Academy slammed Wade’s son into a table and hit him in the cafeteria, according to a Gainesville Police incident report.
Having the school board simply apologize and have her resign wasn’t enough, she said. After the incident, Wade said she spoke to Purvis about her frustrations with having ill-equipped teachers.
“I understand it starts from home, and I do what I can, but honestly, they need some new type of teachers and curriculum,” Wade said. “I haven’t seen any progress.”
A majority of the plan’s success is rooted in the implementation of a culturally responsive teaching method, Valerie Freeman said. Tactics include teaching educators and staff on how to meet specific students’ needs when it comes to community and school culture.
“You can’t be colorblind in the classroom anymore. It matters,” Freeman said. “It’s important that we make these acknowledgments. If you see it, you acknowledge it, you get to understand it. That’s what a child needs.”