Faced with a persistent achievement gap on tests and in overall performance between students who are white or Asian American and students who are Hispanic or African American, California middle school principal Philip Moore is dealing with parent groups separately to find a school-wide solution. Meeting with parents of different races separately, Moore says, yielded more candid, focused discussions. Included: Descriptions of one school's approach to narrowing the achievement gap.
Convinced that candid, targeted discussions are needed to start closing the achievement gaps among students of different ethnic backgrounds, one California principal decided to face the issue head on.
Last week, white, African American, Asian American, and Hispanic parents of seventh and eighth grade students at T. R. Smedberg Middle School in Sacramento, California, met in separate groups to hear principal Philip Moore discuss student performance, overall and within each group. Then the parents, with teacher facilitators, talked in small groups about ways of improving achievement.
Although meeting with parents in separate groups might seem unusual in this diversity-conscious era, Moore says, he had support from many parents. Different meetings allowed parents to discuss issues specific to their culture in a more relaxed forum, Moore tells Education World. He has scheduled a May 1 school-wide meeting to discuss issues related to achievement problems and possible solutions will take place May 1. The ultimate goal of the meetings, Moore says, is to raise the achievement levels of all students.
"It was very tense at first, and some parents were upset because they were not sure where I was going," says Moore, who is African American, after presiding over the four meetings last week. "But after the presentations, I had unanimous support we want to be the first secondary school to close the achievement gap."
"There were very powerful discussions," Moore says of the meetings. "If we had had a heterogeneous grouping, the discussions would not have been as focused on some cultural concerns and issues it would have been more superficial. We got to levels of conversation that any other forum would not have allowed us to do."
Several white and Asian American parents asked what they could do to help close the gap, as did African American and Hispanic parents, according to Moore.
Nancy Kilborn, a white parent, says she initially was surprised when she learned of the separate meetings, but after she attended one, "I was OK with it."
"My meeting was very positive and productive," Kilborn tells Education World. "I definitely don't think Mr. Moore's intent is to divide the school or community. And I'm willing to try anything if it helps kids."
Smedberg has a diverse student body. The ethnic breakdown of the 1,564-student school is 51 percent white, 16 percent Hispanic, 15 percent Asian American, 10 percent African American, 7 percent Filipino, and 1 percent Native American.
Moore says he decided to hold separate meetings for different racial groups out of concern for the "significant achievement gap" between white and Asian American students and between African American and Hispanic students on California state tests and in overall classroom performance.
For example, 39 percent of white and 41 percent of Asian American students scored above the 75th percentile on the state's mathematics test; in contrast, only 23 percent of Hispanic and 11 percent of African American students scored above the 75th percentile.
In reading, 39 percent of white and 35 percent of Asian American students scored above the 75th percentile compared with 19 percent of Hispanic and 14 percent of African American students.
For some parents, the size of the achievement gap was surprising. "I think a lot of people were shocked, as I was," says Deborah Thomas-Smith, an African American who attended the parent meeting. "We saw the tangible test results; I didn't know until then how big a discrepancy there was."
"I have to say it; otherwise, how will we deal with it?" Moore asks. "If we're going to close the achievement gap, we need to have tough conversations. If I don't do it, who will?"
For example, Moore says, one problem African American students experience is that they don't want to appear "preppy," which to them means concentrating too much on schoolwork and losing part of their culture. Youngsters also see more African American role models in music and sports than in the academic or professional arenas, he adds.
Moore says he struggled with how to present the information to the community and discussed the issue with student leaders, who suggested he be direct with parents.
Thomas-Smith says that most of the discussion in her parent group the night of the meeting had to do with parents' getting more involved in students' daily lives. "We do need to change the culture somewhat so being studious is seen as an asset," she adds.
Members of other ethnic groups, such as Hispanics and Asian Americans, may have language barriers that keep them from getting more involved in their children's education, Moore says. Some Asian American parents, for example, expressed concern that they could not help their children with schoolwork because they do not speak English well enough. Since the parent meeting, some Asian American parents have volunteered to work in the school's homework center, he notes.
"I do commend Mr. Moore for facing the problem head on," LaDeaux tells Education World. "But I don't think zeroing in on race was that good. Race is only one variable in student performance; socio-economic status has a lot to do with it too."
LaDeaux says the ability to set long-term goals is important for success. Staff working in an academic enrichment program in Santa Ana, which served high school students of different backgrounds, observed that Asian students, even children of recent immigrants, were quick to set goals. African American and Hispanic students had more difficulty with goal setting, LaDeaux says. "That's a problem that can be addressed at this time [during middle school]," she said.
John Nori, a spokesman for the National Association of Secondary School Principals (NASSP), says he held similar parent meetings when he was a principal in Maryland. He emphasizes that how such meetings are organized can make a difference in how they are perceived by the public.
"I think at first people could feel that [separate meetings] foster division," Nori tells Education World. "It has to be done with tact, so people don't see them as an exclusionary tactic. All meetings have to be open to all parents."
David Gordon, superintendent of the Elk Grove Unified School District which includes Smedberg, says similar meetings have been held at other district schools, with positive results.
"The principle mission is to eliminate the achievement gap," Gordon tells Education World. "This is not meant to be divisive. I can see how some districts could be uncomfortable with this, but our experience has been good."
Some people also might question whether separate meetings send the wrong message to students, but Gordon says he does not think so. "Kids know about the achievement gap. Our goal is to help underachieving kids catch up."