Achievement gap in Ann Arbor prompts school board to confront concerns about racial issues
Ann Arbor Public Schools are making progress on closing the achievement gap between African-American students and white students, even as tension centered around the gap is emerging at the highest levels of the district.
That came through at the last school board meeting, when trustees heard consultant Glenn Singleton of the Pacific Education Group say Wednesday that the district isn't consistently addressing the gap across all of its buildings.
And it showed during the conversation that followed, as two African-American trustees raised concerns about how the board itself considered racial differences.
Trustee Simone Lightfoot told the board and Singleton that she often feels marginalized and not heard by the rest of the school board because of her race.
In an interview with AnnArbor.com later in the week, Lightfoot said her experience of coming through the district as a student, being involved in the district as a parent and coming to a position of leadership should give her as much of a voice as anyone else on the board.
“There are folks who are uncomfortable with how we say (things),” Lightfoot said, referring to herself and trustee Susan Baskett. “And it’s the same thing that happens at the school level, the same at the principal level, the same at the classroom level and the same at the parent level.
"So when parents come to me in the store and say, I would love to come and say something but I don’t feel welcome, I say, 'Join the club.'”
Yet even as the public comments about race in the district raise questions about whether more needs to be done or discussed, AAPS can point to some success in closing the achievement gap.
According to the district's website, in 11 out of 16 areas, divided by grade level and subject, the gap in test scores has closed in the past five years. This includes such large gains in areas such as eighth grade reading, where the gap shrank from 26 percentage points to 15; in sixth grade math, where the gap shrank from 36 percentage points to 12; and in eighth grade math from 42 percentage points to 23.
Those gains were hard-fought in a district where closing the gap has been a decades-long battle.
And even with the gains, the conversations happening at the board level show the complexities involved when matters of race are discussed.
Comments like Lightfoot’s raise concerns among the board. President Deb Mexicotte said she felt a responsibility as the board’s leader to make sure all trustees feel heard. Each board member needs to feel they have a place at the table, Mexicotte said.
“I know there are times when every one of us feels like we’re not getting our point across or winning the day,” she said. “As president, that’s my job to make sure the table is set for equal representation and equal voice for the board members.”
Lightfoot is one of the three newest school board members, joining the Board of Education in December 2009. Baskett is one of the most tenured school board members, having joined the board in May 2003.
Baskett said at the meeting on Wednesday that she occasionally felt the same type of reaction on the board that she says African-American students face in schools — feelings of being unheard and passed over.
“If we as adults are facing this, what about the kids?” Baskett said.
When reached by AnnArbor.com on Thursday, Baskett declined to expand on her comments at Wednesday’s meeting. Singleton, president and chief executive officer of the Pacific Education Group, was in meetings on Thursday and traveling to Denver on Friday and was unable to be reached for this story.
At Wednesday's meeting, Singleton - who's worked with the district since 2003 - told the board that their own inability to agree among themselves about the district's plan to close the gap illustrates that it may not be viewed as a shared priority across the district.
Despite the challenges raised by Lightfoot and Baskett, district spokesperson Liz Margolis said Friday that intervention programs and new academic standards are in place in the schools to shrink the achievement gap.
Among the programs are Read 180, System 44, Reading Intervention and Reading Apprenticeship, which serve to “supplement classroom learning and bring students up to grade level and then to exceed expectations to the next grade,” Margolis said.
Numerous math programs are either in place or will be in place soon to help increase student achievement, Margolis said. The FASTT Math program helps students recall, problem solve, do math applications and will supplement curriculum, Margolis said. And a K-12 math summit is planned to address aligning curriculum and teacher training for these changes, Margolis added.
Starting next year, all eighth graders will be exposed to Algebra I concepts and elementary curriculum will be modified to prepare students for this change, Margolis said.
“Achievement for all students is the centerpiece of our school improvement work designed to meet the needs of individual children,” she said. “Student performance in all racial-ethnic and income groups in our district compares favorably with that of other school systems, but much work remains to be done.”
When looking at the data, policies and strategies put in place, Mexicotte says she thinks the district is heading in the right direction.
She said using consultants such as Singleton and his group is not the only tool the district has to shrink the gap, but is just one of many strategies the district is using. Mexicotte estimated African-American student achievement had improved in some areas between 40 and 60 percentage points during the last eight years.
“Are we there? No. We are looking at getting the highest level of achievement instead of just MEAP standards? Of course,” she said. “I am convinced we are moving in the right direction, based on the data.”
Despite these programs and the statistics, Lightfoot says that the district is struggling.
Out of all the school districts in the country, she believes AAPS is the district that should figure out the solution to the achievement gap.
However, she said, she sees a lot of people expressing concern but not delivering solutions. Those conversations, along with engaging the families in the district who feel they are unheard and disengaged, need to be the next step, she said.
“In Ann Arbor we live on the benefit of reputation,” she said. “When you dig down into the meat of it, we’re struggling. We are the district to talk about it, we’re the district to lead, to be the model, because the public expects that out of us.
"We’re great at rhetoric and the words, but the deeds fall short.”