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Published in Print: April 17, 2002, as Parents Divided Over Meetings In Calif. School

Parents Divided Over Meetings In Calif. School

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The principal of a middle school in Elk Grove, Calif., has stirred up controversy with his decision to divide parents by race and ethnicity for talks about student academic performance.

Despite criticism from interest groups and the local media about the plan, Principal Philip I. Moore held separate parent forums last week at T.R. Smedberg Middle School, located in a suburb of Sacramento, for whites, Asian-Americans, and Hispanics. A meeting for parents of the school's black students is set for April 18.

Mr. Moore did not make his decision lightly.

"There's a large, significant, alarming achievement gap between subgroups in our school," the principal said. "When I thought about breaking the parents into subgroups, I understood the risks, and I knew it wasn't politically correct. But when I talked to kids, they said they would feel embarrassed and ashamed if they were made to look lower than other students at our school in a discussion like this.

"The more I talked with students," he added, "the more I was compelled to be culturally sensitive."

But some critics have argued that the principal's decision could backfire, further dividing a diverse community along racial and ethnic lines.

"You don't want kids to feel it's OK to [segregate]," California PTA President Jan Domene told the Associated Press. "If school officials see segregation expanding, they should stop the meetings."

A local representative of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People also paid the principal a visit on behalf of a parent, Mr. Moore said, and argued that the principal should have called one common meeting for all the parents.

Once the separate forums are concluded, said Mr. Moore, who is African-American, he plans to invite all interested parents to meet in one room next month for a communitywide conversation. By then, he said, they may feel less self-conscious about discussing together why some students are performing better than others.

'Come to a Meeting'

While some parents have called to complain about the segregated meetings, Mr. Moore said, others have thanked him for giving them comfortable forums to discuss a difficult issue.

"One of our white parents approached me [last Tuesday] night and said she was glad I did it this way, because otherwise she wouldn't have felt comfortable talking about this in a public meeting," he said.

Such forums are not new to the 50,000-student Elk Grove school district, which includes Smedberg Middle School. Superintendent David W. Gordon said at least five other schools over the past eight years have opted to discuss student-achievement data with subgroups of parents before bringing all the races and ethnic groups together in a larger forum.

"One of our district's central missions is to eliminate the achievement gap, and the more information we can gather, the better," Mr. Gordon said. "My response to [the skeptics] is don't criticize until you come to a meeting. Come see what's going on, and maybe you'll see this is effective."

According to state data, 51 percent of the Smedberg students who took last year's standardized tests were white, 15 percent were Hispanic, 11 percent were black, and 14 percent were Asian. Whites and Asians scored similarly well, with average scores of 757 and 753 respectively. Both groups far outperformed blacks, who posted an average score of 626, and Hispanics, with 673.

The same disparities turn up in other performance numbers.

Among the school's male 7th and 8th grade students, Asians posted the highest grade point averages last semester, with an average of 2.76, followed closely by whites with 2.53. Hispanic and African-American boys, however, posted average GPAs of 2.08 and 2.07 respectively. Similar gaps exist for female students.

Closing the Gap

Parents at last week's meetings were presented with those statistics and then broke into groups to talk about why the academic divides persist, and what can be done about them, Mr. Moore said.

Although the principal's chief concern is with closing the performance gap, he also argues that the school's Asian and white students need to do better.

"Some people have asked, 'If your Caucasian and Asian students are performing above average, why meet with them?'" the principal said. "The reason is that their level of performance is under their potential."

But white and Asian parents' concern extended beyond their own children, Mr. Moore said.

"The message they were sending me was 'What can we do to help?'" he said. "That was very passionately expressed, that we have a collective responsibility."

Vol. 21, Issue 31, Page 5

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