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Achievement gap still exists in local schools

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Published on: Thursday, February 28, 2013

By Tazeen Ahmad

ROCKVILLE – According to educators and politicians, the problem in local schools is still a matter of black and white.

A persistent achievement gap exists between White and Asian students versus their African American and Latino counterparts in Montgomery County, according to Superintendent of Montgomery County Public Schools (MCPS) Joshua Starr.  

In a recent memo to the board of education, Starr said “the academic performance of Black or African American and Hispanic /Latino students has continued to lag behind that of their White and Asian peers.”  Starr emphasized the importance of implementing reforms and polices to close this achievement gap by community engagement, interventions and professional development.

Concern was echoed by Montgomery County Executive Isiah Leggett, in his Feb. 20, State of the County speech.  Leggett said he plans to redouble efforts to help MCPS close the achievement gap by expanding after-school programs into the summer months.

Dana Tofig, a spokesperson for MCPS, says that school system is “looking to add 30 teachers, who will focus on literacy and mathematics ….especially in schools where there are large gaps and students are not performing at higher levels.”   But he acknowledges narrowing the achievement gap will not be a quick fix and will require a steady investment and focus on the needs of individual students.

“Part of the problem is that some students are living in poverty and they have a lot of needs, not just academic needs,” Tofig said.  He emphasized the importance of the community working with non-profits, with the county, with businesses plays an important role in providing that support.

“Whether those needs are related to health care, mental wellness, or making sure they have a healthy meal when they are not at school,” are all issues that the school system looks at, Tofig said.  He added that non-profit organizations like Identity, Inc., Linkages to Learning, and Excel Beyond the Bell, that partner with MCSP, provide the wrap around support that students and their families need.

Diego Uriburu, Executive Director at Identity, Inc., said his organization helps Hispanic/Latino youth in the county that are struggling in school.

“We identify those youth that are not doing well, might have low attendance rates, and we are able to do home visits, we are able to understand what is happening with their family and to organize a plan to help the family overcome whatever barriers they are facing,” Uriburu said.

Uriburu said “the fact that our model works doesn’t mean that we are reaching everybody that needs help.”   Uriburu thinks that further collaboration is needed between MCPS, non-profits and county agencies, like the Department Health and Human Services, and Department of Recreation to reach the maximum number of youth that are not performing well in school.

Pride Youth Services, Inc.  provides similar case management services and multi-level support to African-American youth and their families .  Ludley Howard, Founder and CEO, said that many of the youth they work with come from very challenging backgrounds; dysfunctional families, unsafe neighborhoods, lack of financial resources and many lack exposure to positive role models.

“We work with kids that might read at a first or second grade level but somehow the system has failed them because now they are in ninth and tenth grade, but they know that they read at a first or second grade level, so they drop out of school or lose interest,” Howard said.

Howard said that once they are able to get these kids to admit they are not reading on grade level then the next step is to refer them to resources, such as literacy programs where they are able to see that they are not alone and that other people their age or older are also learning to read.

Jennifer Baker, principal at Walter Johnson High School feels that the most impact is made in the classroom, but says that programs like the Minority Scholar Leadership Program that began at Walter Johnson, eight years ago, have been very successful in breaking many of the barriers for minority students.   Baker hopes to see the program funded countywide.

“Working with students on critical thinking skills and having them able to talk through challenging problems so they really own it and understand it is really important,” Baker said.  “We will continue to look for different ways to reach out to the whole community.” 

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