Local school leaders look for ways to close racial achievement gap

Educators came together in Dayton Friday to ponder solutions to two giant problems: Attacking the performance gap between black and white students and ending implicit racial and cultural bias in schools.

“The trend lines (of academic performance) for African-American boys are disheartening,” said Tom Lasley, CEO of Learn to Earn Dayton, which put on the annual kindergarten readiness summit at Sinclair Community College. “They come to kindergarten behind, and the gaps get wider as they all mature. That’s very, very challenging news for all of us who care about young people and their potential.”

RELATED: Black students not closing gap in local school districts

The education issue begins at the earliest ages, with the percentage of students who test as “ready for kindergarten” varying widely by race. Montgomery County data shows that about 15 percent more white students than black students tested as ready in 2007, with that gap growing to 19 percent in 2011 and 24 percent in 2015.

Keynote speaker Walter Gilliam, director of Yale University’s child development center, cited numerous studies showing that educators have implicit biases that can harm students.

One study had multiple teachers grade the exact same paper with different “racially identifiable” names on them, with the teachers grading black and white students differently. Another told teachers to watch a group of students for behavior problems while using eye-tracking software, seeing that more teachers watched black students, especially boys, even though no students were misbehaving.

“The whole early childhood movement is based in social justice – it’s about giving every child an opportunity to succeed,” Gilliam said. “I’m not naive enough to think every one of our kids is going to hit a home run. But I believe every one of our children deserves a chance at the plate, with a decent bat and a fairly pitched ball.”

The debate has led to a renewed focus on equity of opportunity among local education leaders.

“The question is, can we have, as a community and as individuals, the courage to do what needs to be done to make sure that absolutely every one of our young people is successful and can compete in the world economy that’s going to confront them as adults,” Lasley asked.

Summit participants included superintendents and teachers from nearly every school district in Montgomery County, and they attended breakout sessions targeting equity issues. These included using “restorative justice” rather than suspension and expulsion, connecting with families to understand obstacles at home, and improving teachers’ cultural competence to understand and accept student differences.

Shelia Burton, assistant superintendent of Dayton Public Schools, said educators have to strike a balance of trying to be sensitive to the real challenges that students have, while also holding them to high standards.

“It’s a tough line to walk particularly if we don’t accept the fact that we’re part of the issue,” Burton said. “If we’re going to solve this, it has to be the adults and the children, not just the children.”

Burton said DPS is making some changes in curriculum and working with teachers to address implicit bias, while also providing students with resources like the Males of Color office and after-school programs.


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Three college students discussed challenges they had faced in school because of cultural issues. Sondos Issa, whose family emigrated from Palestine, recalled cultural and language barriers when her mother and teacher couldn’t understand each other at elementary school meetings, leading other students to make fun of her, and Issa to close off her mother. She urged educators not to assume that immigrant parents don’t care about their child’s success if they don’t understand the system.

David Cabogason explained just how much positive impact a teacher can have via simple support. He said in ninth grade, when his parents were going through a divorce and his mother was coming out as gay, he was terrified of what his older, southern teacher would say at their conference.

“She put a hand on my shoulder and said, David, I know what you’re going through, it’s going to be OK,” Cabogason said. “At a tough time in my life, a little bit of kindness went a long way. … It still affects me today. I got reassurance at my lowest time in high school. I was supported, not judged.”

As schools are devoting resources to issues of kindergarten readiness and equity, state Sen. Peggy Lehner said she was “disappointed and perplexed” that there was no increase in early childhood education funding in Gov. John Kasich’s budget proposal after years of steady increases.

“If you look around the state, we have three cities that passed levies specifically to fund early childhood,” Lehner said. “This should tell us that this is something the community values … and I’m going to continue to work to make sure the state of Ohio’s budget reflects that. Education, from the top to the bottom, has always been a shared responsibility between the state and the local community.”

By the numbers

40 percent: White students who are "kindergarten ready"

16 percent: Black students who are "kindergarten ready"

62 percent: White third-graders who are proficient in reading

31 percent: Black third-graders who are proficient in reading

Source: Learn to Earn Dayton review of all Montgomery County school districts

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