Alachua County Public School Racial Achievement Gap Persists
CSPA has the largest achievement gap in the state between white and black students in English and math. Segregation ended in 1970 for public schools in Alachua County, but performance disparities between black and white students plague the district today.
This district serves more than 30,000 students, of which 33% are black and 41% are white. CSPA officials acknowledged this gap and drew up an equity plan in 2018, promising to eliminate the disparity by 2028, but the plan failed to close the gap in student performance.
He set goals such as increasing black student performance in reading and math by three percentage points each year, but the gap widened as the district failed to implement any policy changes to achieve her goal, said CSPA School Board Member Tina Certain.
The gap continues to divide black and white students seeking academic success.
The district cannot charge its teachers to close the achievement gap. Every district in the state has a gap, and factors outside the classroom are at play.
Crystal Tessmann, director of the Alachua County Education Association’s service unit, said years of systemic poverty and ingrained racism in society had contributed to the formation of the gap.
The achievement gap is the difference between the percentage of white students who achieved a passing grade, a level three, on the Florida Standards Assessment and the percentage of black students who achieved a passing grade.
The reality of separation but not equality during segregation manifested itself in this achievement gap, Tessmann said.
“He just changed his name and continues to deprive and hurt the children who need it most,” she said.
She taught at Metcalfe Elementary for nine years.
Metcalfe is home to an 84% black student population, according to school-level demographics. Last year, 18% of its fourth year students passed the FSA English Language Arts, below the district’s 51%.
She loved her teaching time there and made score gains with her students, but when the state entered after the school received an F for her grade due to low FSA scores, coaches government made teachers feel like they could never do enough.
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“Sometimes it turns out that it’s the teacher’s fault that the achievement gap is happening, and instead it’s about how can we empower teachers to tackle the achievement gap. success ?” said Tessman.
Among Florida’s 75 districts, Alachua’s gap remains the largest with a 47 percentage point difference in ELA and a 46 percentage point difference in math. Miami-Dade follows with a 39 percentage point gap in ELA and a 40 percentage point gap in math.
The district is trying to bridge this divide.
Although the district hasn’t created another equity plan, new programs began in August with the goal of improving student achievement, Certain said. These contrast with the lack of policies initiated with the 2018 equity plan.
One of these new programs was born out of a partnership with the University of Florida College of Education: the University of Florida Literacy Institute, called UFLI. This program trained teachers last summer and has been implemented in all kindergarten through grade two classrooms in the district. It is a research-based phonics program that teaches students to read with multi-sensory activities such as hand movements and singing.
Instead of mediating students once they hit test scores as a third grader, Certain said the district can build students’ literacy skills to avoid the need for remediation.
However, she expects the achievement gap to remain the same or even widen due to pandemic-related learning losses, which are hitting students of color particularly hard. Students of color weren’t in classrooms when COVID was at its peak, Certain said. Many have chosen to learn remotely or have been quarantined often due to exposure, so some learning loss is to be expected.
Even if the gap remains the same or widens after this year’s tests, the UFLI program remains promising. With district progress tracking, students in kindergarten through second grade are showing improvement, CSPA spokeswoman Jackie Johnson said. These students were behind their peer groups from previous years at the start, but progressed beyond where their peer groups were at this time last year.
“We attribute a lot of that to the success of the UFLI program,” Johnson said. “And, of course, teaching kids to read and making sure that by third grade they’ve learned to read and are able to start reading to learn – that’s huge.”
The focus is on reading skills because success in reading and math on statewide assessments depends on the student’s ability to read and understand the question presented.
The district operates other tutoring programs called Beyond the Bell and High Dose. Beyond the Bell is an after-school program accessible to all students and taught by district teachers, offering homework help in all subject areas. High-dose tutoring appeals to students who primarily struggle with reading at all grade levels for one-on-one or small-group tutoring with a paraprofessional.
Students who build these skills at a younger age could help close the achievement gap, which disproportionately affects predominantly black schools on the east side of Gainesville.
For example, on the east side, black students make up 80% of the population at Lake Forest Elementary School. Last year, 15% of third-graders in Lake Forest passed the ELA FSA, which is below the district’s pass rate of 53%, and 21% passed math, below the 51% in the district.
On the West Side, black students make up 21% of Hidden Oak Elementary’s population. For Hidden Oak third-graders, 75% passed the ELA and 68% passed the math, surpassing the district pass rate. Hidden Oak’s ELA pass rate gap between black and white students is larger than the district gap at 55 percentage points.
The school may perform above the district, but its black students are being left behind.
Funding per student is the same for each school in the district. Although the 2019-20 cost per student per school shows Lake Forest received $3,176 more than Hidden Oak. But Lake Forest has 346 students where Hidden Oak has 786 students, so when the same funding is divided by student, it looks unequal.
Schools like Lake Forest receive additional state funding because of their Title I and turnaround school status. Schools receive Title I status when they are determined to have multiple economically disadvantaged students, and CSPA is home to 33 Title I schools. Turnaround status is granted to schools that achieve consecutive grades below a C.
Additional funding does not translate into improved test scores. Factors such as lack of background knowledge, less experienced teachers, differing behavioral plans, and unstable home lives contribute to the CSPA achievement gap.
“Affluent students come to school having had better preschool and early learning experiences,” Certain said. “They come from households where they are surrounded or exposed to more things that are educational and build their knowledge base.”
High-stakes tests like the FSA are composed of questions written from a white person’s perspective, Certain said. The choice and use of words may be unfamiliar to children who do not share the same background as their white counterparts.
The district also aims to provide students, especially disadvantaged students, with experiences they might not have. He partnered with the Cade Museum to form a program called Full Steam Ahead that organizes field trips for students to receive hands-on science activities, Johnson said. This program has not reached its full potential due to the pandemic.
Differences in education and experience make classroom learning vital for students. But teachers in predominantly black schools tend to be less experienced.
“The mediocrity of a poor child or a child who attends an underperforming school has a much greater negative impact on that child’s life,” Certain said.
But closing the gap goes beyond education and literacy programs.
Black students experience a higher rate of out-of-school suspensions than all other students. In the 2019-20 school year, three times as many black students were suspended from school as white students. Such discipline takes away from instruction time and hinders learning.
Former Superintendent Carlee Simon said student behavior is managed at the school building level, so strategies and approaches differ depending on each school’s management. Before the board voted to fire Simon in March, she worked to implement a district-wide behavior plan to establish an expectation of consistency.
State testing data reveals the achievement gap between black and white students, but it goes deeper than just passing or failing an assessment. Multiple factors shape the educational environment and a student’s learning opportunities. The exact reason why this type of discrepancy exists in Alachua and all other school districts in the state cannot be identified.
A panoply of pandemic relief programs and funding promises to boost performance for black students across the district, but the effects of such initiatives take time, patience and another round of test data.
Contact Emma at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @emmabehrmann.
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Emma is a second-year journalism major with a minor in Spanish. She is the education reporter this semester. She’s from Palm Harbor, Florida, but her second home is the gym. When she’s not writing, she’s deadlifting, squatting or benching.