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Residents gather to discuss ways to close school achievement gap

Thursday, November 4, 2010 | 11:46 p.m. CDT; updated 4:23 p.m. CDT, Tuesday, May 24, 2011

COLUMBIA — When Carmen Williams moved to Columbia two months ago, she was told the civil rights movement had forgotten about the midsized, central Missouri city.

And when Nate Egharevba said he thinks black children have the perception from birth that they're not supposed to do as well as their white peers, she teared up.

"You mean to tell me this is still going on?" the 56-year-old woman asked, shocked. "It hurts me to think that all these years later, there are still people that think this way."

Williams and Egharevba were among more than 300 people who attended Columbia Public Schools' second public forum, or "World Cafe," on Thursday night at the Stoney Creek Inn and Conference Center.

Thursday's topic focused on how to reduce the achievement gap — or opportunity gap, income gap, college access gap or criminal justice gap, as it's also called — that the district faces.

By definition, the achievement gap is a disparity in test scores among different groups of students. But it goes much deeper than that, said Superintendent of Schools Chris Belcher.

"This issue is bigger than the public school," he said. "It's an issue we're all going to have to take on."

With 83 social service and faith-based organizations, civic groups and hundreds of other concerned students and community members in attendance, the event was truly a collective community conversation.

Participants at the World Cafe were divided into small discussion groups of about eight people. There were four themed discussions throughout the night, and the groups changed with each rotation. The themes addressed the achievement gap from birth to age 5, at home, in schools and in the community.

Here are some of the suggestions community members made to help close the gap:

From birth to age 5

  • Establish some kind of link between public schools and daycare centers. Schools could offer workshops and materials that childcare givers wouldn't normally be able to access.
  •  Educate parents before they leave the hospital on how crucial their child's early development is to his or her future and how they can help their child succeed.

At school

  • Utilize resources that are currently available and connect with students on a deeper level to make sure they receive personal invitations to take advantage of such resources.
  • Teach history in a way that is relevant and empowering to both minority and white students.
  • Work to rid schools of the stereotypes that all white students are smart and that black students who are smart are trying to "be white."

At home

  • Make sure children aren't coming to school hungry.
  • Provide more resources to people and families that have been in prison.

In the community

  • Provide minority students with role models within the Columbia community so that they're not looking up to just musicians, actors and athletes.
  • Communicate to students on a personal level that they can succeed.
  • Work to eliminate community stereotypes regarding race.

Belcher said the next step for the district is to conduct small focus groups with parents in Section 8 housing, church organizations and other groups.

“This is a really big challenge," he said. "A lot of people don’t take this on, but we’re trying to hit it very open and honestly. There’s some issues that we shouldn’t be comfortable with in this community, but we should be comfortable with talking about them.”


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