Schools reaching for explanations for high student failure rates never have far to look.
Many factors beyond the control of educators put children at a disadvantage before they start kindergarten. The big one is poverty. Combine that with other problems, such as low expectations, parental absenteeism, frequent moves and high stress, and you’ve often got a kid who has two strikes against him before he walks in the door.
Those problems translate into what is commonly called “the achievement gap” – a persistent gap between the average performance of minority and low-income students and the performance of their white, Asian and higher-income classmates. It’s one of the central concerns of American public education.
Yet some educators succeed against all the odds. The University Place School District is an example of a system that has found ways to counter the undertow at home and on the streets. By some measures, the district has actually closed the achievement gap – and even turned it upside down.
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The performance of low-income and minority students has been trending up for years. Since 2010, the district’s low-income students began graduating at roughly the same rate as the statewide average for all students – and they recently exceeded that average.
Black students in University Place have been beating the state overall average in recent years; last year, they exceeded the district’s own 88 percent graduation rate and the 86.8 percent rate of white students. Latinos also slightly exceeded the rate of white graduates.
White students are not slipping; these numbers reflect major gains in the performance of poor and minority students. Key test scores reflect the same trend: University Place hasn’t watered down its academic standards.
Some have downplayed the district’s achievements in the belief that University Place is an enclave of well-heeled whites sprinkled with a few well-heeled minority families. That was true once upon a time; it’s not the reality now.
Poverty has been trending up in University Place even as student performance has been improving. Nearly 40 percent of all University Place students now are eligible for subsidized lunches, the standard measure of poverty in public education. Blacks account for 9.4 of the district’s students – double the state average – and Latinos account for 12.4 percent, according to the state.
School Superintendent Patti Banks deserves much credit for countering the effects of poverty, as do the district’s many dedicated teachers and administrators.
Banks emphasizes that they are not doing anything innovative or experimental. The focus is on relentlessly applying teaching practices and curricula that research has proven effective. The district also aggressively assists struggling elementary students in math and reading.
“Schools can make a difference,” Banks says. That seems an obvious point, but it can be lost when a district faces a tide of children poorly prepared for the classroom. Teaching is hard, grueling work, and teaching disadvantaged children is especially hard. Educators in University Place and other successful districts are demonstrating that disadvantage aren’t destiny.