Committee to address achievement gap

Takaaki Sagawa and Jeanette Wong

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Palo Alto Unified School District Superintendent convenes a fifth committee meeting tonight to discuss root causes of academic disparity among students.

Members of the Gunn High School Black Student Union share their experiences as a minority in a PAUSD high school. Photo by Takaaki Sagawa.

Members of the Gunn High School Black Student Union share their experiences as a minority in a Palo Alto Unified School District high school on Dec. 16 in the PAUSD Office. “Even among black students, there’s a stigma that being smart is a white trait,” Black Student Union President Chantel Winston said. “Palo Alto is a great place for education, but as a minority, it’s very hard to fit in.”  Photo by Takaaki Sagawa.

A district committee hopes to get one step closer to eliminating the achievement gap among students of different racial and socio-economic background at a 7 p.m. meeting tonight in the Palo Alto Unified School District Office. It aims to reach an agreement on previously addressed main issues to advance to root cause analysis.

The Palo Alto Unified School District Minority Achievement and Talent Development Committee, having completed four out of 10 meetings since its launch in December, is addressing the causes and the main issues regarding the gap in student academic performance. The committee has identified several key issues of disparity and established five subcommittees, each focusing to find the causes and solutions through research in areas of data analysis, best practices, focus groups, etc.

Committee member and Palo Alto High School junior Anna Lu believes the subcommittees will allow the committee to reach closer towards sustainable long term solutions.

“So far we’ve mainly been focusing on defining the key issues that affect minority achievement in the districts,” Lu said.  “As of two weeks ago, we formed the subcommittees to address individual aspects of minority achievement in order to work towards a solution. … Our goal is to see what is and what isn’t working for the district so that we can later implement measures that we know are effective long term solutions.”

The committee, which consists of faculty, students, parents and community members, addresses the achievement gap for students of color and lower socio-economic standing within PAUSD. This immense disparity is evident in recent standardized test results from the School Accountability Report Card and a D+ grade in educating minorities from Education Trust-West, an education advocacy group.

The minority students experience the gap firsthand not only in achievement, but also with expectations based on race, according to senior President of Gunn High School’s Black Student Union Chantel Winston.

“There are definitely different expectations we face from white students and other black students,” Winston said. “When you perform well in classes, you’re too white to be black. … But when you are with white students, you’re not smart enough. … You’re too black to be white.”

Winston reflected on the subtle distinctions teachers and students make that contribute to the difficulty of being a minority in a school in PAUSD.

“I don’t think it’s obvious that there are many subtle things that makes things a lot more difficult,” Winston said. “Even among black students, there’s a stigma that being smart is a white trait. … Palo Alto is a great place for education, but as a minority, it’s very hard to fit in.”

Data shows these difficulties, combined with a gap in opportunity and other factors, lead to less participation in honor and Advanced Placement courses and lower scores on standardized tests from minority students.

Students of African-American or Hispanic background in PAUSD schools accounted for a total of 48 AP tests in 2014 out of 3364 AP tests, according to the High School Measures Report released by PAUSD.

A key root of the disparity in achievement among students is their financial and family statuses, according to committee member and Palo Alto High School Principal Kim Diorio. Students in the district face vastly diverse situations, and some can be deprived of opportunities because of the environment they were born into.

“We have students who aren’t able to do their homework because when they go home, they have to provide care for their siblings, or maybe they’re working part time jobs, or maybe they don’t have an adult in their family who can help them with their homework,” Diorio said. “[Meanwhile,] we have other students who have college-educated parents who can help them or hire a tutor to work with them.”

This inequality couples with the tendency of students to compare themselves with others, which consequently can lower their sense of self-worth, according to committee member and Paly college advisor Sandra Cernobori.

“I meet with students who are very strong students [but] do not necessarily feel proud of their accomplishments,” Cernobori said. “They’re comparing them either to other people or [to] some other standard, and they don’t necessarily feel confident or successful. That happens across ethnicity and race, and I am concerned especially for underserved students.”

As Terman Middle School Principal Pier Angeli La Place noted at a committee meeting, it is important to start encouraging all students to strive for academic excellence at a young age, as the achievement gap is not an issue relevant only to high schools. The transition between elementary to middle and middle to high school should be smooth in order to ensure a positive academic experience.

“I think the best way for us to foster academic excellence is by encouraging everyone to join extra-curricular activities,” Lu said. “Students have to feel included and encouraged in order to succeed.”

Committee member and Gunn sophomore Shannon Yang believes the committee can start by reducing the stigma around taking certain lanes. According to Diorio, the expansion of Paly’s Advancement Via Individual Determination, or AVID, program is already in the works.

“The school administration wants to use AVID as a vehicle to build the program and go that way [to improve the learning environment in schools], which I think is a fine way to go,” Cernobori said. “I think we want to see what happens with AVID first before trying something else.”

While working to close the achievement gap, the administration remains considerate of the entire student body.

“Some people are concerned that higher achieving classes will be dummied down,” Diorio said. “I think we really need to make sure every student feels challenged in the classes, which is not easy to do. We are willing to learn from professionals and other schools who do this well.”

The next committee meeting will be held from 7 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. tonight at the PAUSD Office and is open to the public.