A widening gap

Sunday, November 6, 2005

The gap is not closing.

In fact, disparities in achievement between minority students and others in the Cape Girardeau School District have grown even larger over the past five years, despite ongoing efforts by school officials to improve the situation.

On the 2005 Missouri Assessment Program tests, black students in the Cape Girardeau School District scored lower than not only white students but also special education students.

Scores in all subgroups of students haven't improved -- and in some cases have dropped -- since the MAP tests were first given in 1997.

The achievement gap is greatest between white students and black students and between white students and low-income students.

Cape Girardeau school officials say they do have programs and plans in place to help close the gap.

In the past year, the district has trained three staff members to educate others on poverty issues. Jefferson Elementary and Central Middle School began after-school tutoring programs that provided students transportation home.

Last year, the district hired reading coaches for the five elementary schools in an effort to improve literacy.

On the whole, proficiency in communication arts actually decreased -- by an average of 13.13 percentage points -- among all subgroups of elementary students on the 2005 tests. However, school officials say one year is not long enough to see the impact of the coaches.

There are also more community programs, such as the Cape Girardeau Boys and Girls Club, coordinating with schools to help disadvantaged students. The club offers after-school homework help, a computer lab, leadership skills and career planning to students ages 6 to 18.

'Our vision is to graduate'

NaTika Rowles, executive director of the local Boys & Girls Club, said the performance gap between students is really a community issue, not just a school issue.

"We have goals here. We don't say our vision is to do well on MAP; we say our vision is to graduate," Rowles said. "I don't know if that's the answer to higher scores or not, but that's what we target."

Rowles said she believes reinforcement and community help is the key to successful students.

"Special education students are pulled out of the classroom and given everything they need to be best they can be. There's no money to do that for the thousands of kids in the school system," Rowles said. "We don't want any obstacles. If they need help with homework, we'll help with homework. If they need transportation, we'll take them home. We'll help parents be involved."

Cape Girardeau superintendent Dr. David Scala said the district is considering adding more after-school programs, involving black students in early childhood programs, developing better relationships with the community and using varied teaching strategies in the classroom in an effort to improve the achievement gap.

Similar strategies were suggested in 1997 by the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education following statewide task force meetings on the issue, including:

* Involving black students in preschool programs

* Involving black parents community leaders in schools

* Offering diverse teaching techniques

* Providing after-school enrichment activities

The follow-up to that task force is Project Success' Close the Gap Consortium, which uses middle schools and high schools around the state to find successful strategies for helping all students learn.

"It focuses specifically on schools with high minority populations to see if we can find and verify things that work, so we can hopefully learn some lessons that will be transferable to other schools," said Jim Morris, public information director with DESE.

St. Louis and Kansas City area schools as well some from Southeast Missouri, including Sikeston and Charleston, participate. The consortium has met for the past two years.

"We put some research into practice and ideally demonstrate some strategies that might make a difference," Morris said.

Cape Girardeau assistant superintendent Rob Huff said he believes students' personal experiences make a major difference in what they bring to the academic table.

"They have to have something to connect with. It's like giving them a coat to hang up in the closet, but there's no hangers so it just falls to the floor," Huff said.

For example, one recent MAP math test word problem asked students to add and subtract using a scenario at an amusement park. Even if they knew how to add and subtract, some students missed the question because they didn't know what an amusement park was, said Pat Fanger, executive director of curriculum for the Cape Girardeau School District.

While the school district can't be responsible for taking students to amusement parks, restaurants or museums, teachers can provide students with the vocabulary associated with those places, said Huff.

"This is not anything unique to Cape Girardeau, to Missouri or to this time," Huff said. "Schools in general are doing a better job now than they ever have. The standards are a lot higher."

There are four other school districts in Missouri of similar size and minority populations as Cape Girardeau. Among those districts, MAP test disparities between black and white students are comparable to those found in Cape Girardeau.

However, in those four other school districts -- Sikeston, Waynesville, Webster Groves and Kirkwood -- black students on the whole tended to score higher than those in Cape Girardeau, as did white students.

In the end, school officials agree it doesn't matter how many other districts are in similar plights because under the federal No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, all districts must have 100 percent of students proficient in communication arts and math by 2014.

"The purpose of No Child Left Behind is high standards, period. It doesn't matter how hard your row is to hoe," Huff said.


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