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Special Issues: Eliminating The Achievement Gap   
By Angela Kellner

 Visit SPECIAL ISSUES: EDUCATION for photos and more information.


Ensuring that every child receives a quality education is a big responsibility for schools, teachers and parents. With tight budgets hacking away at everything from music to counselors, the job isn’t getting any easier. For students living in poverty or who’ve immigrated to Oregon, having equal educational opportunities is not guaranteed. Minorities and low-income students generally have lower test scores and a higher dropout rate than their white peers. As part of our Special Issues series on education, KLCC’s Angela Kellner visited two Corvallis schools to learn about what they’re doing to eliminate the achievement gap.





Garfield Elementary in Corvallis calls itself a school of the world. Flags from other countries and multi-cultural artwork line the wood-paneled hallways. Students are enrolled in a dual-immersion language program. Principal Juan Baez says instruction is given half the time in English, the other in Spanish.


Baez: “They’re leveled according to where they’re at in their English language development. So one group is working on different skills, and the other one is working on perhaps a little bit deeper skills. Now all these students are learning Spanish.”


The program started nine years ago and those students are now entering high school. Plunging into a second language at Garfield begins in kindergarten and continues through fifth grade. In addition to reading and writing, Baez says kindergarteners have a full hour of math each day, taught in both languages.


Baez: “I think gone are the days that we separate students, by language, by culture - by anything. So I think it is essential that we have students together learning together whether it’s in English or in Spanish, Chinese or Japanese, but they should be together at all times.” 


About 70% of Garfield’s students are living in poverty. A few are homeless and come to school hungry. Others have parents who don’t speak English and can’t help with homework.


Principal Baez, who was born in Mexico, says there is no single answer to the complex achievement gap issue. The number one solution he says is highly qualified teachers who can relate to the children – and parents.


Baez: “You can see that the level of anxiety goes down with the parents when the teacher and the parents have something in common and they can freely speak with that teacher in their native language.”


The school tries to help parents by offering financial seminars, English classes and even a family movie night in the gym. Garfield’s holistic approach is getting recognition from State Schools Superintendent Susan Castillo. She nominated Garfield as a “National Title One Distinguished School” for working to close the achievement gap between student groups.


While improvements have been made for some students in certain subjects statewide, the academic gap still exists. But Superintendent Castillo says there is another gap which has a big impact on student success… not enough minority teachers.


Castillo: “We’ve had a growing increase in our students of color, our minority students in our schools, and yet the make up of our workforce has not kept up with that growing diversity. We are very concerned about that; that’s incredibly important.”



Under the federal “No Child Left Behind” law enacted by President George W. Bush, a greater emphasis is placed on test scores and graduation rates. Castillo says there is no argument that the aim of the law is to close the achievement gap. It sets the bar…but she says it’s too rigid and stifles innovation.


Castillo: “We’ve moved beyond that. We’re not just about a bar. We’re about helping all kids continue to grow and do well in school and continue that growth year after year, and during the year. It’s not about just one point in time measurement.”


Even without a federal mandate or handout, Castillo says the state has to increase its graduation rate.


Castillo: “We should be very, very concerned about what’s happening with kids dropping out of school. Not all kids are successful. And once again when you shine the light on the disaggregated data, you know our students of color are less successful.” 


Last year’s report card for Corvallis High School shows 76% of Hispanic students not meeting the math standards. For Blacks it’s 45%. Even

29% of Whites aren’t hitting the mark.


Chris Becerra: “I ask Hispanic students ‘Why do you think 80-percent of Hispanic students failed the state math test?’ And they answer that they blame themselves, like oh it’s our fault.”


Chris Becerra teaches yearbook at Corvallis High. He’s among a handful of Hispanic staff at a school with 1,200 pupils. Although he’s certified to teach English language learners, he doesn’t.


Becerra: “I mean honestly at this point, I’ve kind of lost hope. I mean it’s pretty depressing when you look at the numbers. I mean if you keep doing what you’re doing, you’re gonna keep getting what you’re getting and I don’t see a lot of movement.”


Principal Dawn Granger:  “Hello Joaquin, good morning.”


Corvallis High Principal Dawn Granger is realistic about her school’s achievement gap. She says test scores don’t take into account everything a kid has or has not learned. Her student body ranges from those who’ve been out of school for a few years and have to catch up to others who get Ivy League scholarships. Granger says the district needs to develop specific and targeted interventions to reach every student, regardless of where they came from and where they’re going.


Granger: “Students are individuals. So not only do we have to consider that you’re a student who perhaps doesn’t speak English but maybe individually you also have some special needs and as a teacher I want to make sure that I can bring out things that interest you and engage you in my classroom; so differentiating the instruction for the individual.”


That’s easier to do when class sizes are smaller as they tend to be at Corvallis High. A voter-approved tax levy helps fund additional teachers and a pre-apprenticeship program. The state-of-the art high school is brand new, thanks to money from a bond measure.


The student production of the musical comedy, “Once Upon A Mattress” is used as a teachable moment. Teens fidgeting with their cell phones assemble in the theatre as their peers on stage explain what goes in to producing a show.


As part of Corvallis’s comprehensive high school approach, performing and visual arts are offered along with auto mechanics and wood shop. Granger says the “fun” stuff helps motivate students to do well academically so they can remain eligible to participate. Those needing help can get individualized attention at the school’s alternative learning center.


Granger: “It’s that self-efficacy. It’s believing in myself that I can succeed because I’ve been successful. So this is just a way to get them to know, yes, there’s nothing wrong with you, you can learn, here’s how you learn. So now that you know how to study and manage your time, are you ready to go back into the regular classroom.” 


Students have to prove their proficiency in order to graduate and move on to college or the workforce. As the state phases in tougher graduation requirements, Granger worries about those who can’t meet the standards. She says students receiving GEDs or modified diplomas will be counted as dropouts.


Granger: “You know the joy of seeing them cross the stage and shake their hand and just to know they’ve accomplished this. And really without a high school diploma, the opportunities available to our students are so minimal…we’re almost sentencing them to a life of poverty if we don’t provide them with a high school diploma. I don’t want to perpetuate that, I want to be part of the change.”


Eliminating the achievement gap will take innovative approaches, time and money. As one source said, if it were easy, it would already have been done. For KLCC News, I’m Angela Kellner.


Copyright 2009 KLCC.


Visit SPECIAL ISSUES: EDUCATION for photos and more information.




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