- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 5, 2004

NEWPORT NEWS, Va. — When Melene Skeeter asked her fifth-graders to picture their future, they described high school, college, a master’s degree. She wanted more.

“A doctorate,” she told them. “That’s the top. You’re going all the way to the top.”

High expectations come standard at Sanford Elementary. But the school’s experience shows the difficulty of ensuring that all children succeed, regardless of race or family income.

Sanford essentially did in 2003 what a nation of schools now must do: eliminate test-score gaps in reading and math among groups of students, particularly blacks and whites.

An achievement gap re-emerged this year, however, when different students were tested at the school, which has a racially diverse, mostly low-income student body. The majority of blacks passed the state tests, with whites scoring 15 points to 16 points higher.

“There’s no simple answer,” said Principal Kari Weston. “But if you make sure rigor is in every class, if you hold all students to high standards, and if you take it child by child, I think that gap is going to get smaller.”

The goal in education is for all children to succeed. But as the school year begins, the emphasis is on poor and minority students.

Federal law requires yearly progress among all groups of students. Schools that get poverty aid — as most school districts do — face penalties, including a state takeover, if they consistently fall short.

Such action comes as blacks still trail whites in measures of success and opportunity: math and reading scores, enrollment in advanced courses, access to quality teachers and college degrees. Black children face higher risk factors that spell trouble in school, including more poverty and less parental participation, federal statistics show.

The challenge also is great for Hispanics, now the largest minority. Hispanic children must overcome many of the same academic challenges and often do it while learning English.

Black and Hispanic students have made gains. Students in big-city school districts lowered achievement gaps in math and reading last year. Dropout rates have decline, and scores on college-entrance exams and performances on national tests have improved.

The answer is not just about changing expectations, teachers say, but it begins there.

In Newport News, a military community between Williamsburg and Virginia Beach, Sanford Elementary has focused its federal poverty aid on improving literacy for the youngest children. Newly hired specialists help struggling students. Teachers work together on reading in six grades.

Beyond that, about 125 students with academic or other troubles participate in a program in which parents, a teacher and others team up to develop individual solutions.

Sharon Dawkins sees a difference. When her daughter came through the school system years ago, struggling students moved on with D grades and children from wealthier families received more attention. Now all the students get help, Miss Dawkins said, including her grandson, Darnell.

“He’s just blossomed,” she said. “You notice the level of confidence these kids have.”

On a day in class in the spring, Darnell had his hand up to participate so often it seemed fixed there. In a classroom nearby, teacher Linda Powell had her second-graders engaged in a math lesson they literally could sink their teeth into — adding, estimating and regrouping gum balls.

Miss Weston said changes in school population and staff may have contributed to lower scores this year, but there is no clear answer. The school still did well enough to satisfy federal law, she said, yet the goal remains to get all students to a higher level.

The Newport News formula for shrinking the achievement gap is academic rigor, intervention for struggling children, continuing training for teachers and a culture of community.

Nationwide, those factors are common among districts making gains, said Stephanie Robinson, principal partner at the Education Trust, a nonprofit known for its work on the achievement gap. Other elements to success are clear course goals, frequent monitoring of student progress and meaningful explanations of test scores, she said.

No fewer than 14 factors, from child birth weight and television watching to unsafe campuses, create the achievement gap, according to an analysis by the nonprofit Educational Testing Service. To close the gap, policy-makers must focus on more than academic issues, the analysis said.

Yet, as students see it, it is up to schools to make the difference, said Elaine Barnes, a teacher at Charles Elementary at Newport News. She respects their attitude: “It’s not ‘Why am I different?’ It’s, ‘OK, I’m different. Now, what are you going to do about it?’”

A lot. In one class in the school, third-graders learning science used interactive notebooks, personal creations of pictures and drawings to reinforce their lessons. In another class, advanced-math students worked at their own pace, driving their own learning.

Down the hall, students got extra math help using giant glasses shaped like the number eight, lollipops formed like a nine, and size-16 shoes. “We’ll stand on our head if it makes it work,” Principal Lynne Fritzinger said.

The school had sizable achievement gaps in 2003. More than 90 percent of white students passed state math and reading tests. Blacks scored 42 points to 49 points lower, but that gap was less than 30 points by this year, when roughly two-thirds of blacks passed.

Unlike Sanford, Charles has many black children who are bused in for racial integration. What unites the two schools are high aspirations for poor and minority students.

Michael Williams-Hickman, an elementary education leader for the school district, uses a joke to get the point across. A principal asks a teacher how she got her racially diverse students to do so well. The teacher says she taught them all to high standards because she had seen their IQ numbers — 140, 150, 160. Actually, the principal says, those were their locker numbers.

“She believes they’re smart, and that’s how she taught them,” Mr. Williams-Hickman said. “I think about that always because it’s about expectations.”

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