Conway public school programs targeting black students are helping decrease the divide in test scores between black and white children, school officials said.
“The gap has closed, but the gap still exists,” superintendent Greg Murry said in email Friday. “The good news is that over the course of time the gap has narrowed and everyone in the district is performing better and better each year — including minority students.”
Schools are looking to meet individual student needs and reach out to minority students who are often left behind in the education system, according to a June 12 report by the Conway School District Closing the Achievement Gap Committee. The group looks at the academic achievement gap and makes suggestions for improving it.
“We are closing the gap in some ways,” Student Services Director Dave Westmoreland told school board members earlier this month. “Of course, there’s more to be done.”
Conway schools are actively targeting black students and their parents to bring equitable education to classrooms, Westmoreland said.
At Ida Burns Elementary School, officials hired black male authors to motivate black male students and encourage them to love reading, writing and photography.
At Woodrow Cummins Elementary, the school held parent night for parents of English language learners to review student data and find ways to increase student achievement. The meetings allowed teachers to build relationships with parents, Principal Charlotte Green wrote in an email.
“The parent night for ELL families helped because it helped with building rapport with ELL families,” Green said. “I do think that helped with student achievement because it also helped with relationship building. I was able to pick up the phone and call the parents when concerns were present, and we worked together to get their kids back on track.”
Other schools are doing programs for early childhood intervention that target black students and professional development for teachers to address literacy development for special needs, poor or black students.
At Carl Stuart Middle School last school year, tutors helped students who needed intervention, according to the committee’s report. School personnel used computer software to pin-point where students were weakest so teachers could better prepare after-school sessions.
Conway schools want to provide personalized education by creating a stronger school culture and better instruction, Westmoreland said. The district has before- and after-school tutoring at six secondary and four elementary schools, and employs specialists to “enhance instruction at all grade levels,” he said in email.
Even the re-configuration of where students go to school is meant to build student achievement, he said.
Because of schools’ efforts, the academic achievement gap has narrowed in some areas, but improvements were not across the board.
In algebra, for third, fourth and fifth grades, the state module test scores showed 54.8 percent of black students scored proficient or above last year, compared to 67.9 percent of white students. That’s a 13.1 point difference between black and white students for 2011, but it’s only marginally better than the 13.6 point difference between the groups in 2009.
The chart in the committee’s report also shows both groups scored lower in algebra than they did in the two previous years.
Both groups in the same grades improved substantially in literacy — black students went from 61.4 percent to 64.8 percent between 2009 and 2011 while white students went from 71.2 percent to 75.5 percent. That means the gap itself widened, but all students improved.
Overall improvement is more important than the gap itself, said Gary Ritter, professor of education policy at the College of Education and Health Professions at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville. Ritter was part of a group that looked at Arkansas’s achievement gap and at what characteristics schools use to beat the odds and reduce that divide. His name is attached to two reports released in 2008.
Arkansas and the U.S. have struggled with achievement gaps among poor and minority students for years, Ritter said. Studying the gap answers this question: “Are we improving education for all kids, not just the affluent?” Ritter said.
Among areas where Conway can improve includes hiring more minority teachers, Westmoreland told board members earlier this month. During this past school year, Conway schools employed only three black teachers compared to 157 white teachers. The school has only one Hispanic teacher and two American Indian teachers, according to information from the Arkansas Department of Education.
Westmoreland said the school should change those numbers to better reflect its student population, which is about 26 percent black, seven percent Latino, 1 percent American Indian and 64 percent white.
“Teachers who are of the same ethnicity as their students are knowledgeable role models,” Westmoreland said.
If Conway and Arkansas want a strong economy and higher living standard for everyone, residents should pay attention to the academic gap, strive to reduce it and make efforts to improve education overall, Ritter said. Companies want skilled, talented and educated work forces, he said. That means what schools are doing locally matters.
“It matters for the future of our state,” Ritter said.