—by Kaci Coats, Executive Director
Over the last 12 years I’ve had a front row seat to the many faces of the achievement gap. My first job in education was working as a teacher at a youth corrections facility that served incarcerated young women ages 15-21. Over my four years in that role, I became more and more disheartened by the high number of students of color that kept walking through the door as well as the enormous gaps in education that those students came in with.
The average student, typically aged 17 or 18, had minimal to no high school credits and were performing academically at the 5th or 6th grade level. This, plus a history of feeling “less than” at school was a recipe for disaster and made it challenging and often impossible to graduate with a diploma. It was the need to try to catch kids earlier, before the gap was too large that pushed me to move out of corrections, into a public middle school in an urban community.
While the move did allow me to take on a less reactive role in educating students, I did become more aware of the achievement gap when I compared the data of my incoming sixth grade students (primarily students of color who spoke English as their second language) to the data of incoming 6th graders at the suburban school down the road (primarily students who were white and spoke English as their first language).
The academic gaps that students came to my school with required us to make scheduling and programming decisions to try to double up time on literacy and math in order to make the academic gains needed. Many schools face this challenge on a daily basis whether at a whole school level or when they have a small population of students with a disability or students with language needs. Schools feel pressured to make decisions that can lead to students experiencing an opportunity gap.
How often have I heard and even said, “Hmmm, these students are two grade levels behind in reading so instead of joining their peers during an elective, they will need to participate in a Reading Intervention class” or “Actually, that student is an English Language Learner so instead of getting to be in Art with their native English speaking peers, they will go to the English Language Development class.” However, when we began to remove a student’s access to electives, the unfortunate impact is that a student can become disengaged in school which further perpetuates the gap between them and their grade level peers.
The challenge of eradicating the achievement gap is huge, but the implications of not being successful in this challenge are enormous. To support schools and districts in this work, I’m excited to be launching the Collaborative for Exceptional Education. The Collaborative will work to provide schools with opportunities for high quality professional development and coaching, expertise-specific collaboration, and strategic partnerships between schools and districts to look closely at state and local policies that may limit schools’ ability to be innovative in their support of the various needs in their building.