A look at Montclair’s achievement gap
By ERIN ROLL
It has been three years since the Montclair school district released a report concluding the achievement gap between white students and students of color, and between wealthy students and poorer students was significant.
Now, the district is in the process of updating that data in the hopes of determining what is contributing to the racial, ethnic and economic divide that still persists in the schools.
In April, the BOE voted to give school administrators the go-ahead to start collecting new data on the achievement gap and its contributing factors. This is expected to include data similar to what was in the 2015 report, including the demographics of advanced classes, special education classes and tracks students are placed in. What the district intends to do with that data once it has been collected has yet to be determined, including whether to assemble a new report or a new panel.
In 2014, on the behest of then-superintendent Penny MacCormack, the district convened the Achievement Gap Advisory Panel (AGAP), a group of educators, community members and parents.
“For too long, the township has accepted this stubborn reality as a fact of life, perhaps caught in the erroneous belief that preparedness gaps are the inevitable result of so much economic diversity. At least we had desegregated our schools, the thinking went, even if we had not integrated them,” the 2015 report said.
Some of the data in the 2015 report included an analysis of the GPAs of the Class of 2014, including the demographics of the students in the top 40 percent of the class. It found that 163 of the 235 white students in the class had grades in the top 50 percent of the class, while only 45 out of the 196 African-American students were in the same ranking. There was also an analysis of the demographics of students enrolled in AP classes, as well as the demographics of special education courses over the past 15 years.
Key points in the report
• Students earning the top grades and enrolling in AP classes were largely white. Conversely, a disproportionate number of students enrolled in special education courses were African-American. An analysis of AP course enrollment in 2014-2015 found that of the 612, 441 were white. Of the remaining students, 64 were black, 44 were Hispanic and 62 were Asian.
In special education courses, a data chart found that about 26 percent of African-American males were classified into special education courses, despite that demographic group making up 16 percent of the student body. For white males, the it was found that 26 percent of that group was classified as special education, and that white males made up 26 percent of the total student body.
• Another concern raised in the report was if discipline is being distributed fairly among students. The report found that between 2009 and 2013, African-American boys accounted for half of all suspensions of elementary school students, 79 out of 164 total suspensions. The report also found that black girls were more likely to be suspended than white boys were. In January, the district released the latest data on suspensions and discipline in the schools, which indicated that students of color, and special education students, were more likely to be suspended or referred for discipline than their peers in other demographic groups.
• The effects of the achievement gap can first be seen as early as elementary school, with the gap pronounced at key milestones such as in third grade and sixth grade. Efforts to fix the achievement gap have to begin at the elementary level.
• A solid Pre-K program was essential to helping children be ready for school.
• Better communication was needed between parents and schools about what was expected of students.
“I think the point is, it has to start early,” said Jane Susswein, a trustee with the Montclair Community Pre-K and AGAP member. Susswein was a member of the panel that covered elementary school, and the panel concluded that a good Pre-K program was essential to . “I think there was also a sense that communication [between parents and schools] was not adequate.”
Contributing factors to the achievement gap include insufficient school funding, inequitable distribution of resources among schools, institutional racism and lack of cultural competence among school staff and administrators. Secondary causes include poverty, families and communities not being able to advocate for their children, and a lack of support services such as tutoring, the report stated.
The report also laid out recommendations based on five categories: effective leadership at both the school and district levels, setting high achievement standards for students, providing supportive learning environments, increasing family engagement and providing professional development opportunities for teachers and staff.
District response to 2015 study
In response to the 2015 report, the district created the position of assistant superintendent for equity, curriculum and instruction. The report described the creation of the position as “mission-critical.”
Newly-appointed superintendent Kendra Johnson was the first and only person to hold that position. The district is expected to begin reviewing applications next week for the position.
The schools also created the position of a student-equity advocate in March of this year, filled by Joseph Graham, who will act as a liaison between families and the schools.
The schools also began participating in the Undoing Racism program, a professional development program aimed at helping teachers to be more conscious of cultural backgrounds and unconscious biases.
At the May 16 meeting, the board discussed a resolution that lays out a “road map” for closing the achievement gap. The resolution is expected to be voted on at a later date.
The complete AGAP report is available for viewing on the district website.