COLUMBIA — Ask Columbia School Superintendent Chris Belcher what it's like to try to close the achievement gap, and he offers this analogy: It's like trying to change the tire on a moving car.
Even so, Belcher made closing the achievement gap his No. 1 target when he joined Columbia Public Schools two years ago. Tough as this battle is, he says it's not one that can afford to be lost.
Statistics to consider
• In the past 10 years, the percentage of students living in poverty in Columbia has risen roughly 10 percentage points. This number is calculated using the number of children whose families qualify for free or reduced-price lunches. Currently, 38.9 percent of students qualify, as compared to 46.9 percent state-wide.
• Poverty has a direct link to success in school in Columbia: just 27.4 percent of students who qualify for free or reduced price lunches scored proficient on the mathematics section of the Missouri Assessment Plan test in 2010. The district average has 50.9 percent of students scoring proficient.
• Poverty and race seem inextricably tangled: 78 percent of black students in Columbia qualify for free or reduced price lunch.
• Only 21 percent of black students scored proficient on the mathematics section of the 2010 MAP test; white students did almost three times better with 61.4 percent scoring proficient.
• Columbia’s black students aren’t just being out-scored by their white peers, but by black students across the state, too. From third through eighth grade, the average difference in performance between the two groups is about 6.5 percent scoring proficient. In some grades, the gap is 10 percent or more.
History of World Cafe
• July 2009: Columbia Public School officials held a retreat to discuss 2009-2010 academic year issues. Newly hired Superintendent Chris Belcher stressed increasing community involvement and improving communication methods.
• December 2009: The first World Cafe was held at the Columbia Activity and Recreation Complex to harvest community input for the five-year Comprehensive School Improvement Plan. World Cafes are public forums where people discuss school issues in a round-table setting while district officials take notes on their comments.
• June 2010: A Comprehensive School Improvement Plan is approved by the School Board and published. It officially calls for “the elimination of achievement disparities.”
• August 2010: The district received a $10,000 public engagement grant from the National Education Association in August 2010 with the idea that improving parent and community involvement in the education process could help close the achievement gap.
• November 2010: A second World Cafe was held to discuss issues specifically related to the achievement gap. More than 300 community members participated in round-table discussions about the educational needs, barriers and existing practices in schools, homes, the community and pre-school education. Out of those discussions, the district identified citizens willing to take more active roles in tackling the achievement gap. Seven working groups were formed, around specific issues, with two community leaders to head each group. Representatives from the Minority Men’s Network and the district are guiding the groups and providing administrative assistance. Detailed information about each working group can be found on the district’s website.
If you go
What: World Cafe: a conversation about the achievement gap
When: 6:30 p.m. Thursday
Where: Stoney Creek Inn, 2601 S. Providence Road
Details: For the last six months, community work groups have been meeting to address the achievement gap among students in Columbia Public Schools. The seven groups are seeking additional feedback on their work.
For more information, contact Michelle Baumstark, community relations coordinator for the district, at firstname.lastname@example.org or 214-3960.
“This isn’t just a school issue,” he says. “The fewer people who graduate from our schools, the more dropouts we have in our community and the more poverty perpetuates. Because we know if you drop out of high school, your job status is pretty much set that you’re not going to make a lot of money. And you’ll have kids. And there we go again.”
Because those problems extend far beyond the schools, Belcher says the responsibility for addressing them has to do the same. To make that happen, Belcher is enlisting an army of volunteers — people from pockets of the community most affected, or who are in the best position to influence change needed outside the classroom walls.
That citizen army has been at work since fall 2009, serving on committees and attending broader community World Cafes to identify causes and solutions both in school and beyond.
Although there's no deadline for the district’s work — Belcher believes this struggle will be never ending — the next World Cafe is slated for Thursday. Citizen committees will share what they've learned and seek feedback from the public. The goal is to find ways the schools and community can combine efforts to attack the gap.
“We’re going to hold the district’s feet to the fire,” says Steve Calloway, a former school board vice president and current president of the Minority Men’s Network, the organization Belcher drafted to oversee the effort.
“This has got to be no excuses and no blame.”
Fighting the core issues
Calloway is the field general of Belcher's citizen army. His charge is to work with businesses and community groups to make them aware of their stake in the achievement gap.
He is more blunt than Belcher about the failure of so many poor and minority students in the public schools.
"It's a pipeline to prison," he says.
One way or another, Calloway points out, society will pay for that failure. His focus is on finding ways to turn a societal cost into a more productive investment.
To that end, Calloway is working with seven themed committees, each headed by two people who have deep connections to the community through their work in organizations such as the Boys and Girls Club, Columbia Housing Authority, churches and the NAACP.
They’ve been charged to do more than announce meetings with the hope that people will show up. Instead, Calloway says, they must reach out to individual groups and families whose children are being lost in the gap, going door-to-door if necessary.
“The achievement gap is such a large and multi-factoral problem that we need some approach to eating it a bite at a time,” Calloway says.
Belcher agrees: “As we’re working on it, it’s growing."
The community committees grew out of the work of two earlier World Cafes. At the first, in December 2009, school officials and community members hammered out a five-year Comprehensive School Improvement Plan. At its heart, it calls for an "elimination of achievement disparities."
A second World Cafe in November pushed that work deeper and further into the hands of the citizens. Some 300 community members talked through a tangle of problems linked to how the achievement gap plays out in schools, homes, the broader community and pre-school education.
From that effort, working groups were built around seven core areas:
- Early Childhood: How affordable and accessible is child care in Columbia, and how can children be better prepared when they enter the school system?
- Before and After School Support: What programs exist in the community and in the schools to help economically disadvantaged and minority students to continue learning?
- Parent/Community Education and Involvement: How can schools be more inviting to parents and increase their involvement?
- Transportation, Housing and Mobility: What are the public transportation needs of students, especially those whose families move a lot or live far from schools?
- Economic Development/Employment: Do businesses have parent-friendly policies and other ways to support education?
- Health Care and Nutrition: Are students healthy both physically and mentally? Do they receive the nutrition, exercise and medical care needed to succeed?
- Schools: How can curriculum and testing practices be improved, and how can the district best be held accountable?
Calloway says he’s glad the district is moving away from its “relatively ineffective” earlier approach, which focused on problems and solutions within the schools. By pushing the issue into the community, it can better identify the root causes behind problems, sometimes by asking a question as simple as, “Are our schools welcoming to parents?”
“We want the truth; we want to know the real deal here,” Calloway says. “The good thing about this is Dr. Belcher really wants to know."
The district's seven themed work groups loosely align with four stubborn and complex social issues that sit at the nexus of the achievement gap. In eight months of intensive reporting by the Missourian, both in and outside the school district, the consistent message was that any success in closing the gap will require progress in those areas: closing the "opportunity gap;" providing more universal and effective early education; dealing with the many tentacles of poverty, and confronting the clash of culture – often race-related – that undermines learning.
Here is a further breakdown of those issues:
1. Limited opportunity, limited learning: Parents are their children’s first teachers, but too many lack the time or know-how to get the job done.
Pre-school children who aren't read to at home, don’t have access to books or aren't engaged in conversation on a regular basis start kindergarten with a fraction of their peers’ vocabulary. Belcher estimates it's as low as 20 percent.
“It’s hard for those kids to play catch-up,” says Cathy Cox, a home-school communicator at Benton Elementary School. “And, of course, in a classroom setting, you’re probably going to teach more to those students who already have (learning skills) in hopes that the others will catch up.”
That means the gap already exists for some children before they enter school and widens once they're there. Calloway says closing that double gap will require individual intervention methods to move slower learning children along more quickly.
Those disparities also have their way during school holidays and summer breaks. While studies show that children of all socioeconomic backgrounds can learn at the same rate, many fall behind when learning is interrupted.
Columbia public schools enrolled 7,100 students in summer programs last year. That doesn't make up for other learning that is connected to family income and lifestyle — something education experts call an "opportunity gap" and cite as a chief cause behind the achievement gap.
For example, students from higher income families might visit national parks or museums, go to the library on a regular basis or take family trips, learning about the world beyond Columbia. Meanwhile, children from low-income families miss out on such culturally enriching activities.
“The research is pretty clear that for students whose families struggle with the problems of poverty, the summer is a real time of lost traction,” says Sally Beth Lyon, the district's chief academic officer.
Failure to provide those opportunities doesn't mean parents don’t care, Calloway says. Rather, they lack the knowledge or means to provide them.
He says he’s not sure the district has done a good job figuring out how to help those parents help their kids.
“It’s not just about doing math problems,” he says, but includes seemingly simple things: turning off the television during homework time or encouraging a child to read.
Cox agrees: “If we can get parents to understand that a simple thing like reading your child one book a day, when you get up in the morning or before you go to bed at night, it would make a huge difference in how our students learn in those first few years of school."
2. Early Education: Emerging studies show that pre-school education is a critical factor in readiness for school. Yet for many parents, preschool and childcare is neither accessible nor affordable.
According to a 2009 survey by the National Association of Child Care Resources and Referral Agencies, the cost of full-time care for an infant at a center is, on average, 30 percent of the median income for a single mother in Missouri.
Even if parents can afford out-of-home care, there's a question of quality: Only 17 percent of child care centers and 3.38 percent of family child-care homes in Missouri are nationally accredited.
“But we know that in order to be successful with that population, we really need to be reaching down and taking care of some of those deficits prior to kindergarten,” Belcher says.
The Columbia district runs a federally-funded Title I preschool, but it’s only a half-day, four-day-a-week program for children ages 3 to 5 with recognized developmental needs. While the program is free, transportation remains a barrier for some families, and there's a waiting list to get in.
Contrast that with the Montessori school where Peter Stiepleman, assistant superintendent for elementary education, sends his children. Its curriculum is similar to the Title I program, he says, but Montessori runs all day, five days a week and provides home-cooked meals.
The other difference: Stiepleman can afford private pre-school.
A main frustration for the district is that regardless of how crucial it is, funding for preschool can’t be squeezed out of its already shrinking budget, according to district officials, nor is it part of the schools’ traditional kindergarten-through-12th grade mission.
Belcher was working with supportive state legislators to introduce a bill that would allow counties to pass tax levies to fund coordinated early education efforts, but the bill didn't make it out of committee. Currently, voters can initiate levies to provide senior citizens with adequate care facilities.
"So there’s no reason you couldn’t do that for children as well,” Belcher says. He plans to lobby for the legislation at the next session.
3. Poverty's Long Reach: Nearly four in 10 Columbia Public School students live at or below the poverty level. For black students, that number is almost eight in 10. Since 2006, the number of children who qualify for free or reduced price lunches has gone up 25 percent, from just over 5,100 students to almost 6,400.
While poverty alone doesn’t determine a student's ability to learn, the culture of poverty often does.
Children from low-income families can be exposed to fewer pre-school enrichment activities, tend to experience stressful environments at home and inconsistency in housing. They come to school hungry, dirty or not dressed properly. They lack winter coats, tennis shoes and after-school snacks. Their tummies rumble.
“Being uncomfortable because of your appearance, sometimes because of the way you smell, because of the way your hair looks, has a huge impact on students’ education,” says Cox.
If parents can't afford steady housing, learning is interrupted as a child misses days or hops around district boundaries.
Stiepleman, formerly principal at West Boulevard Elementary, tells of a student who started school there without knowing whether he was right- or left-handed. Teachers at West Boulevard officials began working with the child, but before they made much progress, he was transferred to Field Elementary School and then to Benton soon after that.
“Without consistency, he’s not learning,” Stiepleman says.
At Benton — which has a student population that is 74.2 percent black and where 90.8 percent of students qualify for free or reduced price lunches — Cox’s job is to work with low-income and minority parents to add stability to their children's lives. She checks on attendance issues and arranges transportation for students who might otherwise be transferred to a different school.
Her belief in stability comes from personal experience. When her oldest son was a fifth-grader at Benton 13 years ago, the Parent Teacher Association did a comparison of MAP scores of students who remained at Benton from kindergarten through sixth grade to scores from the district as a whole.
“When we looked at those MAP scores, they were just as high and higher than our district averages and the other schools,” Cox says. “The kids, they were just as competitive.
"Now that being said, we don’t have a lot of students here who stay the whole way through. I think our teachers are some of the best and most dedicated teachers that there are, but they have a very tough job.”
Part of that job involves handling disruptive behavior. Stresses from home — divorce, drug addiction, unemployment — follow children to school. Students in poor families often take on adult responsibilities, caring for siblings or contributing to the family income. Life has taught them that they don’t dare back down when confronted; if someone threatens or disrespects them, they've been taught to fight back.
"We've said to more than one student, 'You don’t have to be an adult here. You can be a kid.’" Cox says. "The funny thing is, is kids aren’t always able to separate that."
Schools with high rates of poverty also tend to have low rates of parental involvement, which multiplies learning challenges. Parents may work multiple jobs and inconvenient hours or not be able to afford a car. Even if they want to attend a school board meeting or a parent-teacher conference, they face extra hurdles to get there.
“We get upset because you didn’t come to the conference — but it’s raining and you’re not going to walk seven blocks,” Belcher says. “Those are the realities we’re dealing with.”
Minority or low-income parents can find the schools intimidating. Perhaps they had bad experiences as students themselves, or they don’t know how to weed through the standards, protocols and bureaucracies.
“I think sometimes some of our parents, be they black or white or any color, are kind of intimidated by academia,” Cox says.
Columbia school boundaries are drawn to create economically diverse schools. But Stiepleman says a liberal transfer policy has allowed wealthier parents to remove their children from low performing schools, leaving poor schools even poorer.
4. Culture clash in the classroom: Poverty looms large in the achievement gap regardless of skin color. But skin color still matters.
“We’re not even scoring at state average for other black students, and that’s just unacceptable,” Belcher says. “To be below state average on anything in Columbia is just unacceptable.”
Statistics also show that, overall, black students in Columbia who aren't poor by school standards only score marginally better than blacks who are.
At Fairview Elementary, where the number of poor students is more than 10 percentage points lower than the district average, the achievement gap between black and white students is greater than the district average.
"Why is that?" Calloway asks.
“What is it about our school culture that creates such disparities?” Stiepleman asks.
Calloway said some teachers are concerned that there are lower expectations from students who have traditionally not been successful in the classroom. In turn, those students get conditioned to aim lower than their peers.
“There is this belief (and) somehow it’s in your brain that the darker your skin, the less intelligent you are,” Belcher says. “That’s a bias. No one really knows how it got there, but somehow it got sorted and selected.”
Those perceptions turn into self-fulfilling prophecies, and children no longer work to their potential. Instead, they strive for their perceived potential, which stoops pretty low after years of failing math tests and struggling to keep up with their classmates’ reading abilities.
Children pick up on subtle differences in teaching and language very easily, too. That makes Calloway wonder: What happens when there are only one or two minority students in a class? Does the teacher call on or skip over them? What are the assumptions made about those students?
Whether intentional or not, teachers can often react to certain behaviors from black students as disruptive. The kind of behavior problems associated with poverty are then complicated by perceptions about race.
“Why is that?” Belcher echoes. “Is it because … (students) bring in more erratic behavior? Or is it because we as white teachers tend to take that as more aggression than it was intended to be? That that’s just the way they act and it didn’t have any more intent than a white kid doing something, but we perceive it that way?”
It's not easy to talk about, but the realities can't be denied, officials say. Stiepleman labels it “benign ignorance.” Cox calls it “culturally unaware.” Belcher says it’s a “micro-aggression.”
At the beginning of the 2010-11 school year, Belcher asked for a list of all school suspensions during the past five years. The results, he says, were as embarrassing as they were eye-opening.
“I took it to a meeting and said, ‘Can anyone explain to me why, if you’re black, you’re five times more likely to be suspended?’ … We’ve got good-hearted people who want to be fair, and I have to keep confronting them with the data and forcing them to answer questions for me.”
This culture clash, which can be seen in almost any public school classroom today, has its roots in history, Belcher says. Public schools in the U.S. were designed and run by middle- and upper-class whites who valued an Anglo-Saxon education model built on structure, discipline, timeliness and respect for authority. When blacks and minorities from other backgrounds and other experiences were integrated, the system never adapted.
“We still have a school that’s fit for one group of kids but not for the others,” Belcher says.
Digging deeper to civil rights
Many school officials believe the achievement gap is the civil rights issue of this era. They also acknowledge that an equal education for all students might take as long to secure as equal rights for minorities, women, gays and the handicapped.
That's one of the reasons Belcher is pressing hard to close the gap but also taking the long view and taking the fight to the community.
Up to this point, he says, the district’s efforts to close the gap have been too linear: recognize a problem, propose a policy change, implement that change, move on. If the roots of the gap are as deep and tangled as most believe, singular, one-time fixes won't last.
"I want to make something that’s this constant discussion," Belcher says. "If something’s constantly discussed and it’s constantly in the forefront of your work, you will deal with it.”
That will mean getting buy-in from school officials, teachers and members of the community and being open to long-term, systemic changes.
It also will mean, he says, finding better ways to measure success.
Under the federal No Child Left Behind Act, the official mark of progress in Missouri has been MAP scores. But MAP tests are given at the end of the school year, with scores not delivered until fall, when teachers have moved on to a new class of students. District officials say MAP tests, which are standardized by the state, can be biased and don't reflect the specialized teaching being done in individual classrooms or schools.
Rather than rely on the MAP, Belcher wants to increase the number of districtwide assessments given to students. Tests would be given in every grade level and every subject throughout the year, while there is still time for teachers to respond to the results. The tests would track individual student improvement over time, rather than simply measuring whether he or she meets one-size-fits-all standards.
Belcher looks at it this way: “It’s funny how in P.E. (physical education) we don’t question at all that kids come in with different abilities, do we? But when we put them in a math class, No Child Left Behind says they’re all going to be the same.
“We should take you from where you’re at and improve you.”
Calloway, the community field general, is less interested in measuring success in today's classrooms than in implementing strategies that build a platform for success years from now. The markers he's interested in include increases in professional development and cultural competency programs, more students taking the ACT and going to college and fewer dropouts and discipline cases, especially among minority students.
“If we invest in our kids’ success, they can be productive citizens and contribute to the community,” he says. “The alternative is that person might wind up being a burden to society.”
He wants the community to keep pressure on the school board, through budgetary and curricular decisions, to live up to its commitment of “eliminating achievement disparities.”
He wants the whole community to understand why everyone has a stake in closing the gap and to tap into the city’s array of rich resources — everything from government to private businesses to community groups to three universities — to make that happen.
“If we can’t close the gap … in Columbia, with all the things we have going for us," he says, "then I’m not sure where it can be closed.”