Uploaded: Tue, Feb 10, 2009, 6:53 pm
Kevin Skelly regrets achievement-gap comments
Parents meet with Skelly to find ways to improve learning for Latino and African-American students who are falling behind in performance scores
Palo Alto schools Superintendent Kevin Skelly Monday night apologized to about three dozen mostly minority parents for his skeptical statements about closing the achievement gap between Latino and African-American and white and Asian students.
"I think I owe our community an apology," Skelly said. "Some people could interpret my comments as giving up on kids. … I wish I had chosen my words more carefully."
Skelly earlier said it isn't possible to expect that average children who come to the United States without speaking English and whose parents have little formal education to match achievement levels of youngsters whose mothers have advanced degrees in English and can afford to stay home and supplement their children's educations.
Some parents were upset that Skelly said schools cannot overcome the influence of the community and home life in improving student learning. Some were also upset that Skelly did not know why the achievement gap had widened for African-American and Latino students in the district.
After apologizing, Skelly discussed ways to address the achievement gap. Currently, African-American and Latino minority students in the district fall about 100 points behind white and Asian students according to the California Department of Education's academic-performance index.
"What we need to talk about is our children that come into school with high expectations, but by high school they're not there," Marvina White, a member of the Parent Network for Students of Color, said.
"It feels like there is no energy being put into finding out what is happening, which to me feels like an emergency."
White suggested that the district assign a staff member to focus on finding ways to improve the achievement gap for minorities, a recommendation Skelly said he would take into account.
White also recommended that the district take a systematic approach to eliminating the achievement gap.
"It's important to access the data in terms of race and ethnicity, otherwise there's no way to figure out the problems," she said. "It does have to do with race. If you don't see it that way then you can't solve the problem."
Palo Alto parent Lisa Daniels said parents and teachers need to take an individualized approach to improving education for minority students. "My son is the only black kid in the classroom," Daniels said.
"Self esteem is probably the biggest thing we need to work on for our children."
Nearly half the parents in the room nodded in agreement.
"I have to make sure that my child's self esteem is high," Daniels continued. "Our gap is that children need to be encouraged."
Skelly said student success depends on a myriad of factors. "To me the right metric is talking about getting kids ready for colleges," he said. "It's a universal metric."
Skelly said the district should look at its students' college readiness to measure academic improvement.
"I think we need to survey the kids and see what they're thinking," parent Michelle Kasper said.
Posted by Paly Mom,
a resident of Midtown
on Feb 22, 2009 at 12:41 am
It took quite a while to read the many comments, but I think this is an extremely important discussion that the whole community needs to participate in. (It's actually long overdue.)
My daughter, who is Latina, started out in PAUSD at one elementary school. I would say our experience was somewhere between OhlonePar's and the parent who felt her child was often excluded. It was often clear to us that some parents and occasionally school personnel had stereotypes about Latinos. For example, I often felt that when my daughter was invited somewhere, well-meaning parents assumed we didn't have the money to pay our share of the cost of the activity. Since we are middle class, I was surprised by this at first, then grew accustomed to it. I knew they meant well, but it caused me to wonder what other assumptions they might be making that weren't true. It was also obvious that some moms were more comfortable with their daughters making friends with white children and encouraged these friendships more, even if my daughter happened to be playing much more with their daughter at school. Occasionally, a parent would refuse to let their child come to our home at all, even though their daughter really wanted to, sometimes pleading in front of me, and a couple of times my daughter's friends told her that they were sorry but their mom didn't want to invite her to their party. (Once, all of the girls in the class were invited except for the two Latinas and the one African-American, who of course found out and felt very bad.) Sometimes very obvious things happened at school. For example, when I arrived to chaperone a field trip, all the kids of color were assigned to my car (along with my daughter). When my husband showed up for the next field trip in the same car, he was sent to the office. The secretary wanted him to prove that he had enough car insurance. (When I asked other parents if they had ever been asked to show evidence of how much car insurance they had, they said they hadn't.) When I asked the secretary about it the next day, she told me that in her experience, renters often don't carry enough car insurance, so she wanted to make sure. (Maybe this was snobbery as much as racism, but it came across to my husband, who had taken the day off work to chaperone, as racism. He never volunteered to participate in another school activity.) At the end of the third grade, my daughter's teacher told me that she had recommended her for GATE in the fourth grade because she was outstanding in reading and writing. At the beginning of the fourth grade, my daughter came home saying, "My teacher never calls on me. I often raise my hand, but she never calls on me" and "I don't think she likes me. She doesn't talk to me." My answer was, "Just keep trying. She will notice that you're a good student." My daughter then began to come home very unhappy that some students were being taken out and given more advanced books to read (the GATE program). All were white, and some had been in classes with her the previous year and weren't really such strong readers. I still held off contacting anyone, somewhat incredulous. Finally, I called the GATE coordinator at the district, and she told me that my daughter should have been included in the GATE reading group, so a mistake must have been made. She notified the teacher, and my daughter was then included in GATE activities. If the third grade teacher hadn't told me, my daughter would never have been included, even though, according to the reading test administered in the 2nd grade, she was then reading on the 5th grade level.
So are all these people terrible, racist ogres? No, in fact, I liked her 4th grade teacher and thought, after she started recognizing my daughter as the good student she is, that she turned out to be the best teacher she had in elementary school. It does make me wonder though about the experiences of other students whose parents might not be as assertive.
Fast forward to high school...My daughter attended a private middle school but wanted to attend Paly. She was very excited about it, and I had heard such fantastic things about it that I assumed it would be fine. Wrong decision! We have found that the school has a real problem that it's in denial about. As explained in the WASC report, "While 74.1 of its graduates overall had completed the A-G requirements for California universities, only 44% of Hispanics and 36% of African Americans had, as recently as 2006." I didn't see a figure for White students or Asian students, but I would assume it would have to be fairly high. These figures reflect the reality that there are few Latinos or African Americans in AP or Honors classes, and the ones who are in the classes sometimes feel that teachers question whether they belong there. One example: My daughter's teacher last semester recommended that she move to the lower lane of English this semester, even though she had made an A- first quarter and ended up with a B. She currently has an B+ in the Honors class, which she is enjoying. This kind of thing has happened several times. Our experience has been that some school personnel, including many teachers, have lower expectations for Latinos and African Americans and tend not to view them in as positive a light as White and Asian students. We have also felt that this occasionally influences grading when it is subjective (essays, journals, projects) or final grades when the teachers do not use InClass. (Several times she's had grades almost identical to those of close friends in her classes who are Asian or White; they've ended up with A's and she's gotten a B.) Again, this doesn't mean the teachers are terrible people, just sometimes unconscious of stereotypes they have which influence the way they view students. The problem though is that this has a huge impact on students of color in Paly (and I doubt Gunn is different). Confident students begin to lose confidence. Students who were previously leaders begin to doubt their leadership ability and fade into the background. In my daughter's case, it has meant that we've had to give her lots of support to help her feel good about who she is and to continue believing in herself. Some of this might just be parenting an adolescent girl, but not all.
I think a large part of the problem stems from the fact that P.A. parents and staff assume that the vast majority of Latinos and African-Americans are in PAUSD because of the Tinsley Act. Many don't believe these students belong in the district and feel that they bring the level down since they don't see them as having the same cultural advantages and readiness to learn and excel in school (a view expressed frequently by P.A. Online posters). The fact is that the majority of Latino students at Paly live in Palo Alto, not EPA. The view expressed by "Perspectives" that many P.A. residents are getting tired of never hearing "thank you" reflects that assumption that these students are all outsiders. Aside from that, Tinsley students have been in PAUSD schools since kindergarten or first grade, so there's really no excuse for them not to be scoring proficient on standardized tests. (And please don't give me that rubbish about the school not being able to make up for the disadvantages they experience in their homes and families. There are some other districts
who are doing a better job with Latino and African American students. If they can do it, so
1) As Kim B. suggested, really try to find out what the point of view of the students of
is. Do anonymous surveys, ask probing questions.
2) Hire more qualified teachers and staff members who are African American and
Latino. The Stanford Step Program graduates some topnotch teachers every year.
Why aren't the schools hiring more? At my daughter's elementary school there was
not one Latino and only one African American. All the classified personnel were
White except for the custodian. At Paly there are a few Latino and African American
teachers in the classroom (not much evidence of the "significant headway in hiring
underrepresented minority teachers" alluded to in the WASC report). There are a
few more in non-classroom positions. Aside from the fact that role models can
make a huge difference, this would have some effect on the problem of low expec-
tations and the "us and them" mentality.
3) Engage the faculties in anti-racism workshops during staff development days, not
with the purpose of taking them to task, but to make them more aware of the expe-
riences of Latino and African American students and to get them to take on some
of the responsibility for addressing the problem.
4) Most importantly, create opportunities for discussion so that these topics get
discussed and really dealt with, not swept under the rug until it's time for the next
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