A citywide initiative proponents hope will close the achievement gap in Berkeley public schools appears to be working, though significant disparities remain, according to data presented Tuesday night in a special session before the Berkeley City Council and School Board.
The 2020 Vision for Berkeley’s Children and Youth — called “2020 Vision” for short — is a broad collaboration dating back, in its earliest form, to 2008, and is designed to chip away at the achievement gap among racial groups in Berkeley schools by the year 2020.
According to organizers, African-American and Hispanic students consistently perform “significantly below their peers on state and district standardized tests and other measures that predict academic success, such as chronic absence, truancy, suspension, and dropout rates. By some measures, the disparity in the academic performance of Berkeley students along race lines, commonly known as the ‘achievement gap,’ is one of the widest reported in California.”
To begin to address this problem, organizers have been tracking “key indicators” and trying out a range of initiatives, via a plethora of community partnerships, they hope will make a difference. The eight indicators include everything from kindergarten readiness and reading proficiency by third grade to data related to attendance and the disproportionality of police contacts across racial groups in the Berkeley Unified School District. (See a presentation overview here.)
Tuesday night, staff affiliated with the effort, now in its third phase, said data show trends in the right direction, with coordination improving among a variety of youth-serving agencies, and new spin-off efforts underway.
African-American children showed the most growth in kindergarten readiness between 2012 and 2013, Debbi D’Angelo, director of evaluations and assessments, told local officials Tuesday. Hispanic students showed the least, and have the largest gap to close.
In 2013, 44% of African-American students entering kindergarten were able to identify 10 letters by sound, compared to 34% the prior year. Hispanic and white students showed little change in that measure from year to year, with 30% of Hispanic and 58% of white students able to complete the task last fall.
In 2013, African-American children entering kindergarten also showed growth in rote counting up to 20, with 68% successful in that task, compared to 54% the year before. White students also improved, to 82% from 72%. Hispanic students received the lowest scores and showed the smallest growth, with 53% successful last fall, up just 2% from the prior year.
Tanya Moore, a city staffer working on 2020 Vision, credited a Berkeley public health program called “Be a Star” with helping to make a difference in those areas. As part of that effort, public health nurses provide screenings at preschools, during in-home visits and at doctor’s offices. They also offer home visits for pregnant and postpartum women to screen for depression.
The district reported “incredible growth” for all three groups of students in reading proficiency by third grade for fiscal year 2012-13, said D’Angelo.
It’s a particularly critical measure because, via Tuesday night’s staff report, “According to a national longitudinal study released by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, high school students who did not read proficiently by 3rd grade are four times more likely to drop out than students who demonstrated 3rd grade reading proficiency.”
Hispanic students showed the biggest jump, with 51% deemed proficient in 2013, compared to 31% the prior year. Fifty percent of African-American students were measured to be proficient, up from 41%; and 90% of white students made the grade, up from 82% the prior spring.
Moore said a literacy tutoring program called BUILD, which connects Cal students with more than 300 elementary school kids across 15 after-school sites, was believed to have made a big difference in reading proficiency for local youth.
The district also showed improved attendance rates across all three groups between 2010-11 and 2012-13, said D’Angelo. Chronic absences — defined as missing 10% or more of the school year — dropped from 45% to 35% for African-American students; 38% to 24% for Hispanic students; and 18% to 13% for white students.
“It’s a demonstration that our interventions are working,” she told officials.
Programs such as Alive & Free, which addresses youth violence, as well as the comprehensive Berkeley High Bridge program, focused on academic guidance and support, are believed to be helping students succeed in those areas, Moore said.
In March, the district held its first ever “College and Career Day,” yet another sign of the Berkeley school system’s commitment to creating a success-focused atmosphere, programs organizers said. College and career readiness is one of 2020 Vision’s key goals.
Police contacts and suspensions are still primarily experienced by African-American students, according to data from Tuesday night’s staff report. Of 307 total suspensions in the 2012-13 academic year, 57% were of African-American students, 17% of Hispanic students and 14% of white students. (No other data were provided.)
Of 124 total contacts with police in calendar year 2012 for students under 18 years of age, 52% were with African-American students, 17% were with white students and 16% were with Hispanic students. (No other data were provided.)
Raising awareness will be key moving forward
Berkeley Schools Superintendent Donald Evans told officials on the School Board and City Council that plans are in the works to continue spreading the word throughout the community about 2020 Vision, including its eight priorities. In addition to those noted above, other goals include the successful completion of ninth-grade math standards and improving academic engagement.
Evans said the district plans to continue working to reduce disparities among different “targeted” groups, from foster youth and students receiving free or reduced-price lunches, to those who are learning English as a second language.
School Board member Julie Sinai said one of the challenges going forward will be to find a way to communicate “the human story” behind the numbers as a way to increase community engagement.
“So much of what we’ve done is what people asked us to do around systems change. It’s hard to communicate systems change, how to tell the story: How does it impact the life of the child?” she said. “We need to somehow pull that out.”
In the not too distant future, Berkeley will be forced to rethink school finances in line with changes at the state level related to school budgets and Proposition 30. Those changes are expected to bring more money into local coffers. And, due to efforts such as 2020 Vision and existing programs and thinking related to equity, Board Member Karen Hemphill said Berkeley is “far ahead of the pack” in terms of preparedness statewide.
She agreed with Sinai, however, that the 2020 Vision effort needs higher visibility in Berkeley to succeed.
School Board Vice President Judy Appel said she was happy to see various improvements across a range of measures, but added that there’s still more work to do if the city hopes to meet its goal of closing the achivement gap by 2020.
“It’s great to celebrate the amazing movement, but we really have a long way to go,” she said.
[Clarification: The first sentence of this piece was adjusted slightly after publication to clarify that correcting disparities, rather than inequities, is the focus of 2020 Vision.]
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