Why are these kids doing so well?

Octavio Gutierrez previews lessons for students learning English. Photo: Emmanuel Felton

The kids are doing alright on Common Core tests in a small Los Angeles-area district, reports Hechinger’s Emmanuel Felton. In Wiseburn Unified, low-income blacks, Latinos and English Learners significantly outperform similar students elsewhere.

In fact, the district’s 55 percent of the district’s low-income black students passed the English exam, 11 points above the state average for all students.

Statewide, only 13 percent of low-income black students passed in math. In Wiseburn, 29 percent passed, the largest percentage of any district with significant black enrollment.

Superintendent Tom Johnstone said the district started teaching math differently in 2009, before the Core.

In the lower grades, teachers get on the floor with their students to work with brightly colored blocks and chips to assess their mathematical thinking and problem-solving strategies. In the middle and upper grades, students spend whole class periods on a handful of math problems, rather than racing through reams of equations.

An engineering curriculum called Project Lead The Way has students work together to build things. Johnstone says that program has been key to getting young students – particularly girls and minorities underrepresented in science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields – interested in math, science and the robotics team, which competes in world championships.

In English Language Arts, Wiseburn gives English learners what amounts to 27 extra days of instruction, with previews of what they’ll learn later in the week in English together with their native English-speaking peers.

Wiseburn is a predominantly Latino district with a high tax base from nearby aerospace companies. It’s a district of choice: 43 percent of students have transferred in from neighboring districts with struggling schools.

However, success isn’t just a matter of parental buy-in and funding, Johnstone told Felton. “Much of this was accomplished during the fiscal crisis, when we weren’t able to give out any salary increases for five years.”

Two girls, different futures

As a 12th grader, Guadalupe Acevedo started thinking about college, but learned she qualifies only for community college. Photo: Allen J. Schaben, Los Angeles Times

Lizbeth Ledesma and Guadalupe Acevedo grew up in low-income, immigrant families in Los Angeles, but their college futures are very different, write Joy Resmovits and Sonali Kohli in the Los Angeles Times.

A straight-A student in public school, Lizbeth earned a scholarship to Chadwick, a private school, in ninth grade. She pushed herself to meet higher academic standards. By 10th grade, expert counselors were helping her plan for college. A counselor helped her get a full scholarship to Babson College, near Boston, her first-choice school.

Lizbeth Ledesma meets with her colleague counselor, Beth Akers, at her private school.

Lizbeth Ledesma discusses college plans with counselor Alicia Valencia at Chadwick, a private school.

At Roosevelt High, a Los Angeles Unified campus in a low-income neighborhood, Guadalupe didn’t think seriously about college till her senior year. Even then, “I was so lost. I didn’t know how college worked.”

California students must complete a college-prep sequence of courses with C’s or better — and an overall B average — to qualify for a state university. Guadalupe realized too late she qualified only for community college.

She’ll start at East Los Angeles College and “hopes to transfer to USC, where she wants to take dance and Chicano studies and be a cheerleader,” reports the Times. (And ride a purple unicorn.)

Someone who earned mediocre (or worse) grades in low-level classes at a not-very-demanding high school is almost certain to be placed in remedial classes in community college. Most remedial students drop out in their first year, sometimes in their first few weeks.

Guadalupe could work hard and beat the odds. But her USC dreams show she’s still not getting useful advice.

Latino, black parents: Expect more of our kids

Latino and black parents think educators expect too little of their children, according to a survey, by The Leadership Conference Education Fund.

Both groups — but especially black parents — set a very high value on school safety, with school resources and high-quality teachers coming next in priority.

Both said family support made the most difference in students’ success in school, following by individual effort.

Ninety percent of Latinos and black parents said schools should hold low-income students to the same or higher standard as other students, reports Natalie Gross on Latino Ed Beat. “Some teachers have low expectations for low-income students of color – and parents know it.”

As in many school surveys, most parents liked their children’s schools, reports Education Week. However, 53 percent of African-American participants said schools nationally were doing a poor job preparing African-American children for the future.  Only 28 percent of Latino respondents agreed.

Also, about one-third of African-American and one-quarter of Latino participants responded that schools “are not really trying” to educate African American and Latino students.

“Children of color” are the “new majority” in public schools, the Leadership Conference observes.

Latinos learn about heritage — but what else?

Erika CastroErika Castro says the Spanish Heritage program transformed her academic experience. Photo: Erin Hinrichs, MinnPost

Graduation rates are on the rise for black and Hispanic students in Minnesota, writes Katherine Kersten in the MinnPost. “But how much do these new graduates actually know? she asks. “What is their high school diploma really worth?”

A “culturally relevant” Spanish Heritage program has helped boost the Hispanic graduation rate by 15 percentage points at Roosevelt High School, says Principal Michael Bradley.

Hispanic students develop their “cultural identity” and improve their Spanish skills, reports Erin Hinrichs, also in MinnPost.

The curriculum, much of which is taught in Spanish, empowers Latino students to stretch themselves academically while exploring their cultural identity at the same time. Once they build confidence in the classroom, they become their own advocates within the public education system by taking on community outreach projects.

Kersten wonders whether they acquire the knowledge and skills necessary to become well-informed, productive citizens. “Though Roosevelt’s Hispanic graduation rate increased to almost 75 percent in 2015, only 6 percent of the school’s Hispanic students were proficient in reading and only 10 percent in math, as measured by state tests.”

Culturally relevant pedagogy is the brainchild of Gloria Ladson-Billings, a professor of education at University of Wisconsin-Madison. She coined the term in 1992, and says it describes “a pedagogy of opposition.” A primary goal of her approach, she says, is that “students must develop a critical consciousness through which they challenge the status quo of the current social order.”

Ladson-Billings was inspired by Paulo Freire, a Brazilian activist and educator who wrote Pedagogy of the Oppressed in 1968

“Freire dismissed academic learning as mere ‘official knowledge’ that oppressors use to rationalize inequality in capitalist societies,” writes Kersten. “How does a pedagogical approach grounded in such a perspective prepare American students for success in 2016?”

Hinrichs’ story quotes a poem, I AM from Wearing a Mask, by Erika Castro, 17, who credits the heritage program with teaching her to express herself. One section reads:

I am from being tired of trying to reach YOUR expectations, being tired of hearing YOU say I am smart, but I am not smart, I am full of YOUR useless information 

I am from an empty vessel crafted by YOUR robo hands to create an illusion for the people

I am from being tired of YOUR oppressive ways

I am from being tired of hearing about social justice  

I AM from ALL, BUT yet, NONE . . . 

Castro, who came to the U.S. from Ecuador at the age of seven, says learning about her heritage has made “it a lot easier to go out in the world and apply that, be comfortable, and not fear the unknown.” She plans to major in creative writing in college.

As Kersten writes, the poem doesn’t sound like it’s author is ready to go out in the world and face the unknown.

Integration or neighborhood schools?

“A wealthy Virginia county is considering a return to neighborhood schools that would concentrate children from a poor, largely Hispanic neighborhood into two schools,” reports the Washington Post.

Children arrive at Evergreen Mill Elementary School. Photo: Douglas Graham, Loudoun Now.

Children arrive at Evergreen Mill Elementary School. Photo: Douglas Graham, Loudoun Now.

Since 2012, Loudon County has created economic integration by busing children out of their low-income, largely Spanish-speaking neighborhood.

A group called Educate Don’t Segregate opposes the plan, reports Loudon Now.

School board members who back the plan said predominantly low-income schools receive extra staffing to meet students’ needs. In addition, “we’re taking into account the benefits of having a school within their neighborhood, a chance to be involved in school activities, summer school, giving parents easier access to attend parent-teacher conferences,” said school board member Jill Turgeon.

Schools aren’t resegregating

Schools aren’t resegregating, writes Steven Rivkin, a professor at University of Illinois in Chicago, in Education Next.

Blacks have less exposure to white students since the 1980s because white enrollment has dropped by nearly 30 percent. However, they attend more ethnically diverse schools because of rising enrollment by Latinos and Asian-Americans.

Black enrollment has stayed about the same.

Demographic shifts have increased “contact between both whites and blacks and the children of immigrants from Latin America, Asia, and elsewhere,” Rivkin writes.

Latinos are now the largest minority group, while whites make up slightly less than half of public school enrollment.

Focusing on black-white enrollment is old hat. Focusing on socioeconomic diversity would make more sense — but we need better statistics on family poverty and disadvantage. Using school lunch stats makes no sense.

Black teachers identify more gifted blacks

Black achievers are about half as likely to be placed on the “gifted” track as whites with similar test scores, according to a new Vanderbilt study.

The teacher’s race makes a difference, reports NPR. Black teachers identify 6.2 percent of black students as gifted in reading, while non-black teachers saw only 2.1 percent of black students as gifted, researchers found.

Because of racial gaps in test scores, many districts rely more on teacher referrals to identify gifted students, researcher Jason Grissom told NPR. “That opens a big potential door as a driver for disparity.”

It’s not clear why black teachers find more gifted black students, writes Hechinger’s Jill Barshay.

Perhaps black teachers are more likely to recognize brilliance in a black student and suggest that the student be screened for giftedness.

Parents also play a big role in lobbying for their children to enter these programs. Another possibility is that black parents feel more comfortable advocating for their child with a black teacher, demanding that their child be screened for giftedness.

And finally it’s possible that black children perform better for a black teacher, and are more likely to demonstrate how brainy they are in these classrooms.

There’s no white-Latino “giftedness gap,” the study found. White and Latino students with the same scores were equally likely to get placed in a gifted program.

Testing every child for giftedness could help close the gap in access to accelerated programs, suggests Grissom.

Study: Teachers underrate minority achievers

Teachers give lower ratings to high-achieving black and Latino students than to white classmates with similar test scores, concludes a new University of Texas study published in Social Science Research.

However, teachers gave higher ratings to low-performing blacks and Latinos then their scores indicated and judged low-performing whites more harshly.

Sociologist Yasmiyn Irizarry compared first-graders’ scores on a series of cognitive and literacy tests to how teachers ranked the students’ abilities, reports Education Week.

Teachers rated average-performing students as average, regardless of race or ethnicity.

. . . high-performing students of color were underrated by their teachers in comparison to white high-achievers. Black or Latino students who scored in the top 10 percent of all 1st graders, were 7 to 9 percentage points less likely to be rated “far above average,” and they were generally rated one to two rankings lower (out of five) than white students who scored the same.

The gaps in teachers’ expectations did not close until minority students were in the top 1 percent of all students.

Diversifying gifted, honors classes

Broward County, Florida more than doubled the number of low-income students and students of color identified as gifted — without changing eligibility criteria — by screening all second graders rather than relying on referrals from parents and teachers, a recent study found. Those who did well on a nonverbal cognitive test were given IQ tests.

Universal screening raised the percentage of gifted black students by 80 percent, Latinos by 130 percent and disadvantaged students by 180 percent, reports the Orlando Sun-Sentinel.

Sandi Peterson, middle school counselor in Elk Grove, congratulates a student for applying for honors classes.

Sandi Peterson, middle school counselor in Elk Grove, congratulates Kaianna Kelley for applying for honors classes. Credit: Hector Amezcua, Education Week

 The newly identified students “included many students with IQs significantly above the minimum eligibility threshold, implying that even relatively high-ability students from disadvantaged backgrounds were being overlooked under the traditional referral system,” according to researchers.

Schools elsewhere are trying to enroll more low-income, Latino and black students in gifted and honors classes, reports Education Week.

In Elk Grove, a Sacramento suburb, 3.5 percent of lower-income students (based on eligibility for a free lunch) are in gifted and advanced classes, compared to 11 percent of non-poor students. The district has spent “more than $860,000” to rethink procedures for identifying high-potential students.

Screening all third graders has nearly doubled the number identified as gifted.

The district’s Elitha Donner Elementary School, for example, identified 12 low-income students as gifted this year, up from only three last year, and narrowed the white-black gap in gifted education from 4-to-1 in favor of whites to 2.5-to-1 in the last year alone.

Next year, the district will roll out the rest of the changes to the identification system, with teachers and principals developing new rubrics for identifying exceptional creativity and leadership, both in class and in outside activities, such as community volunteering and church youth groups.

“We’re looking at our students differently,” said Michelle Jenkins, Donner Elementary’s principal. “It’s training your brain that ‘gifted’ is not always your top academic students.”

Screening all students for high IQ makes sense. Redefining “gifted” to mean “good kid” does not.

Early college for all — in the Rio Grande valley

Krystal Balleza earned her associate’s degree two weeks before her high school graduation. Photo: Pharr-San Juan Alamo Independent School District

In a high-poverty district on the Texas-Mexico border, all high school students take “early college” classes, reports Hechinger’s Sarah Butrymowicz in the Washington Monthly‘s College Guide.

Pharr-San Juan-Alamo Independent School District (PSJA) Superintendent Daniel King pioneered early college for all at nearby Hidalgo. His goal is to persuade low-income, minority students — not just the motivated achievers — to raise their aspirations.

Nationwide, 90 percent of early college students graduate from high school, 10 percentage points above the national average, and 30 percent of students get either an associate’s degree or a certificate, according to Jobs for the Future, the Boston-based nonprofit that runs the national Early College Designs program.

Research has shown that students selected for early college schools by a random lottery have higher high school graduation rates and college attainment levels than those who lose the lottery and attend a traditional high school.

Incoming ninth-graders in all of PSJA’s high schools will take a college entrance exam used to show who’s ready for college-level work. They’ll take prep courses until they pass the exam, then move on to community college courses — usually taught at the high schools — and summer courses at University of Texas- Pan American.

Once enrolled in college courses, PSJA students average Bs, according to data provided by the district. Out of PSJA’s roughly 1,900 graduates this May, 60 percent took at least one college course. About 215 students graduated with an associate’s degree and 270 got a certificate.

By 2019, district officials hope that at least 90 percent of graduates will earn at least some college credit, with 1,000 students earning an associate’s degree or certificate, a one-year credential given out in fields like welding, IT and medical technology.

The district helps students make college plans and fill out financial aid applications. District staff advise first-year students on local campuses.

With an average ACT score is only 17.3, college degrees for all — or even most — is unlikely. But I’d bet these kids go farther than the PSJA students of the past.

I wrote about Hidalgo Early College High School and talked to King for my chapter on high-achieving high schools for disadvantaged students, part of Fordham’s Education for Social Mobility (soon to be a book!). It’s a very gutsy idea.