The Nov. 15 edition of Wednesday Journal contained a lengthy commentary on the need for the Oak Park community and schools to work together to address the academic achievement gap [What if we all tried to solve the achievement gap? Viewpoints]. This commentary, a well-thought-out piece of writing by Roberta Raymond, correctly calls all of the involved parties to task for not making more substantial progress toward solving this problem, and she frames her concern with several "What if?" questions. However, Ms. Raymond fails to acknowledge several of the initiatives that are currently underway in District 97. In response to Ms. Raymonds' "What if?" queries, brief descriptions of several of these initiatives that relate specifically to District 97 are highlighted below:
1) What if we established a community entity-a think tank/task force-for all of our schools?
Following discussions that were held last year concerning the achievement gap, the Achievement Gap Round Table was convened by Dist. 97 in March 2006. The group is made up of district administrative representatives, representatives from OPRF, and highly interested community members. The role of the Round Table is to discuss the essence of the achievement gap and to review research surrounding this issue with an eye toward recommending new district initiatives. This group is currently refining its mission and is looking for an additional 6-8 community members who could add to the discussion about achievement in Dist. 97. Interested community members should be able to meet approximately once every two months in the early evening (5:30-7:30 p.m.). Contact Kevin Anderson (firstname.lastname@example.org; 708/524-3017) for more information.
2) What if we returned to a time of really sharing information with other communities-where school officials put their heads together to explore issues such as the achievement gap? What if our participation in the Minority Student Achievement Network (MSAN) led to action at both districts (97 and 200)?
Since at least the beginning of the 2005-06 school year, the focus of Dist. 97 has been on addressing the achievement inequalities found in our schools. Title I monies have been refocused in those schools meeting qualifications; summer school has been redesigned; school improvement plans have been designed around student achievement, the gap, and climate issues; before-school, during-school, and after-school programs have been added to address learning needs; district representatives have attended the conferences of the National Council for Educating Black Children (NCEBC) and MSAN; district representatives serve on the MSAN research practitioners council (RPC); and district administrators and principals have been focusing staff development efforts on meeting the needs of struggling children. All of these initiatives have involved a great deal of discussion around the myths and truths of the gap and these discussions will continue until the problem is eliminated. Districts 97 and 200 are currently awaiting word on a new pilot study through MSAN that will further illuminate those issues around the difficult transitions for minority students going from the middle schools to the high school.
3) What if every significant new study or book on the achievement gap were read by our ... task force and evaluated in terms of applicability to our system?
The Administrative Leadership Council of Dist. 97 is currently conducting a monthly book study of Courageous Conversations about Race, by Glenn Singleton and Curtis Linton. In addition, the book Principles for Principals was provided to all Dist. 97 principals last spring. The book was identified by NCEBC as a good resource for use with schools having a significant number of black students. Principals also review the MSAN strategies on a monthly basis, with regular updates and handouts provided once or twice each month at administrative meetings.
4) What if we all made a pledge to stop blaming the "other guy" for the gap?
A current doctoral study being conducted by Mr. Lincoln Chandler of M.I.T. is examining those issues that may be contributing to the gap in Dist. 97. From his preliminary research of ISAT scores, Stanford 10 scores, report card grades, and student mobility, it is becoming clear that the standard set of excuses can no longer stand up under the light of scrutiny. While parents may not all have an extensive educational background and many families are struggling with issues of income, what the schools accomplish with children is no one's fault but our own. Students of color generally do not do as well in our schools. That is a fact evidenced by years of assessment data. While many minority students succeed and move forward at a rapid pace, others do not, and we need to be concerned about these children. We need to stop blaming the parents, the children, and the system. They are our children, and we must help them to learn!
5) What if all parents received guidebooks for student success each year with a checklist for activities involving parents and children?
Handbooks outlining the learning standards to be covered each year are provided in either paper or electronic versions to parents each year. In addition, individual principals and teachers send home regular communications to parents outlining learning activities, suggested projects, and hints for better learning. While these things are going on, the district is always looking to improve communication with parents and to provide additional learning opportunities for families.
6) What if we notice when experts are in town and ask their assistance?
The comment was made that the district would have been wise to piggyback onto the visit of Mike Feinberg to the area for the OPRF Tradition of Excellence awards. Mr. Feinberg co-founded the KIPP (Knowledge Is Power Program) schools which have been highly successful in meeting the needs of low-income and low-achieving students in urban areas. Actually, we did take advantage of having Feinberg in town, inviting representative teachers and administrators from districts 97 and 90 to a three-hour lunch meeting. Feinberg talked about the philosophy of teaching and learning in his schools and the unique challenges being faced in each location. In turn, attendees asked questions pertaining to our own gap issues and Feinberg shared his thoughts and experiences. It was time well spent.
7) What if we looked at the numbers and the methods in cities that decreased their achievement gaps?
Through our MSAN connection, we are regularly looking at methods used in other locations to decrease the learning gap. At the present time, Dist. 97 is participating in developing a study about middle school mathematics methods. Shaker Heights, Ohio, is developing the pilot version of the study and Dist. 97 will be reviewing and testing the instrument when available. In addition, our Pipeline and FLOW programs are very similar to programs run in other MSAN districts. These programs involve community collaborations and student leadership initiatives, respectively.
Dist. 97 has recently begun using the Pearson Benchmark assessment system to provide in-depth early knowledge for teachers about student skills in mathematics. This knowledge should provide opportunities for teachers to differentiate classroom instruction for all levels of students. We are also beginning the process of implementing the Response to Intervention (RTI) model for assisting struggling learners. This model will provide additional learning time for those children who are struggling in math and reading, especially in the lower grades. Finally, the district has just been using the DIBELS early reading assessment to catch small problems before they grow into major learning issues.
We know that we have not yet solved the problem of the achievement gap in Dist. 97, but we feel that excellent progress is being made. The commitment by the district's teachers, support staff, and administration is to be applauded. We are on the right track to helping all learners succeed.
Kevin Anderson, Ed.D., is assistant superintendent for Teaching and Learning at District 97.
Editor's note: We invite OPRF High School to send a response to Roberta Raymond's recent commentary as well.