Families & the Community

Calif. School Sets Own Path on Achievement Gaps

By Alan Richard — May 08, 2002 9 min read
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All Philip Moore wanted was for the parents here at T.R. Smedberg Middle School to talk about the achievement gaps that separate many of his students. Instead, he ended up with an unlikely label for an African-American principal.

People called him a segregationist.

Mr. Moore knew his decision to separate parents by race and ethnicity for a series of meetings on test scores, culminating in a May 1 meeting for all, might spark a local controversy at first. But when he found himself talking to the “Today” show, and was threatened with a civil rights lawsuit, he learned how volatile it can be to talk about race at school.

As new federal and state laws push schools to monitor student achievement by race, however, Mr. Moore’s experience in this suburb of Sacramento illustrates the way educators are compelled to grapple with racial and ethnic differences—and what can happen when they do.

Elk Grove, where new California meets old, has evolved from a mostly white, small- town community into a bustling place Caucasians, African-Americans, Latinos, and many Asian groups call home.

It made sense to Mr. Moore, the only principal this 1,560-student school has had since it opened five years ago, to talk with parents in the comfort of their own groups as he and his colleagues reviewed the striking differences in recent test scores here for whites and Asian-Americans and lower-scoring Hispanic and black students. (“Parents Divided Over Meetings in Calif. School,” April 17, 2002.)

Forty percent of the school’s white students scored in the highest quarter of California students in reading, for instance, compared with 14 percent of black students. That rate is similar for Hispanics.

“People know that this is an important issue, and they don’t know how to talk about it,” Mr. Moore, a 46-year-old father of two, said a day before last week’s community meeting. “Everywhere I’ve been, we’ve only shared this data with the educators. For us to collectively address this crisis, the parents have got to know. The kids have got to know,” he said. “Now, everybody knows.”

Stirring the Pot

The debate here over the separate meetings began with an article in The Sacramento Bee newspaper. From there, the story hit the Associated Press, spreading across California and the nation. National Public Radio did a story, and Mr. Moore received calls from national TV networks.

Then came the criticism. The state PTA chairwoman blasted Mr. Moore in the press. Linda Chavez, who had been tapped by President Bush for a Cabinet job and heads the Center for Equal Opportunity, a Washington policy group that opposes racial preferences, threatened to sue the school. She argued that any sort of segregation violates the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education.

Here, folks weren’t as concerned.

Mr. Moore said he received just four telephone calls from people worried about the meetings.

For his part, Mr. Moore admits his initial letter to parents about why they would be separated could have been clearer. He said he feels bad about that, and about how the commotion has distracted some people from the real work here on student achievement.

As for raising the issue, or holding the meetings as he did, he’s not sorry: “I could have played it safe. I could have coasted through my career by having a school that scored just above average.”

But California, Elk Grove, and even the U.S. Congress—with the passage of the “No Child Left Behind” Act of 2001—aren’t accepting “just above average” anymore. And Mr. Moore knows it.

To reach higher, he said, schools must ask themselves harder questions and look for help from people they’ve never tapped before. “How far have other schools gotten without this conversation?” he asked.

Superintendent of Schools David W. Gordon said he was proud of the way Mr. Moore handled the meetings, and he brushed aside the criticism. Other schools in the 50,000-student Elk Grove Unified School District have met in the past with groups divided by race and ethnicity, he said.

“I don’t think we can be closed to different approaches until we’ve solved the problem,” he added.

Listening to Students

At first, Elk Grove parents say, they were caught off guard to learn about the segregated meetings. But once they came, they understood why Mr. Moore decided to take that approach.

He did so on students’ advice.

For months, Mr. Moore consulted small groups of African- American and Hispanic students who, together, represent a third of the middle school. Half the school is white; Vietnamese, Laotian, and Filipino students make up most of the remaining enrollment.

The principal sought students he believed could offer thoughtful clues that might help him solve one of the biggest mysteries in education: why black and Hispanic students’ test scores, even in affluent communities like this one, are so far behind those of their white and Asian peers.

Boosting minority achievement is a major goal of the school board here; Mr. Moore’s approach was a way Smedberg Middle School could face the issue head-on.

The students told him it was all about culture. The ways teachers see them. The ways they see each other and themselves.

The conversations went something like this: “I swear, when I first started 7th grade, I said ‘I’m going to make bad grades because it’s cool.’ Then I got my report card and just cried,” said Latisha Robinson, an 8th grader and an African-American who gathered with friends at a green metal picnic table in the school’s courtyard last week.

The whole group was part of Mr. Moore’s informal advisory group of black students.

When black students show more of an interest in school, their peers “think you’re being white,” added 8th grader Kiarra Gibson.

“I don’t even know why it’s like that,” said Christian Harden, another 8th grader.

Latisha spoke up again: “There’s nothing the school can do.” Added Kiarra: “You’ve got to have to want to do better.”

When Mr. Moore first heard those things, he felt as if a house had landed on his head. It was heavy, depressing, and real: “What this is telling me is the kids are rejecting learning. If we don’t get to this subculture issue, all of our efforts are going to go to waste.”

Keven MacDonald, an administrative intern and former teacher at the school, said that with a teaching staff that includes few minority members, some students feel they just can’t connect.

One girl pleaded with him to find another role model to include in lessons besides Martin Luther King Jr. “I really feel strongly that the kids have a lot to teach us,” Mr. MacDonald said.

Parents Speak

Mr. Moore held four parent meetings: one for white parents, one for African-Americans, one for Hispanics, and one for Asians. He notes that no one was turned away from any meeting. Few people attended nights outside their designated groups. More than 600 people attended the four meetings.

The principal learned a lot. White parents, who numbered more than 300 on their night, told teachers in small groups that they expect more from the school, and want honors-level courses to emphasize critical thinking and research, not simply more work.

Hispanic and Asian parents were mostly concerned about language and their ability to communicate with the school. If parents can’t speak English, they need the school to offer a homework center where students can get more help.

Tension filled the air when black parents met, Mr. Moore said. He knew how they felt. “It was like, ‘Why are you segregating us?’” he said. One parent asked him why he had brought back Jim Crow.

“I’m in their shoes; I’m thinking the same thing,” Mr. Moore said.

Black parents also were shocked when they learned of the low test scores. There was anger, and there were tears.

Bryan Stafford, an African American with an 8th grade daughter at Smedberg, was more impressed than upset about being separated.

“I don’t think it made any difference. I’m glad that the principal put his self on the line. To me that takes a lot of courage,” said Mr. Stafford, whose family moved here from the San Francisco Bay area in January.

Mr. Moore said that once he clarified his goals and expectations for the meetings—and his ambitious plans for the school— parents relaxed and talked freely.

The staff at Smedberg collected the big pieces of paper from the breakout sessions at the segregated meetings and began preparing for what Mr. Moore hoped would be the big event May 1, when everyone would come.

All Together

Ten minutes before the meeting on Wednesday evening of last week, many of the metal folding chairs in the school cafeteria sat empty. The lights were low. Contemporary jazz played as people took their seats—about 50 at first, with maybe two dozen school employees standing around.

“The good news is, our school is achieving above average. However, we can, and we must, do better,” Mr. Moore said into a wireless microphone. “It’s an issue that we have to talk about. We must do this in a way where this school is a model for others across the country, where there’s no such gap.”

As he spoke, more people trickled in. More than 100 had gathered by the time parents broke into smaller discussion groups. Guided to classrooms by Smedberg teachers, parents of all shades and backgrounds talked about what they’d like to see from the school. A white woman told her group that school uniforms might lessen the peer pressure students feel when they look at one another’s clothes.

Others asked why honors classes weren’t open to more students, and how the school might help parents commit to working with their children more. One group discussed how to find more relevant minority role models.

During a break, a white parent, Shelley Walkers, said she was glad the school was focusing so tenaciously on improvement.

Elsewhere, several Hmong parents huddled on a sidewalk, sharing their views. Steve Ly interpreted for the parents, who originally came from Laos.

“His child has been here for a year, and he hasn’t gotten a letter from Smedberg yet that he can read,” Mr. Ly said, passing on the views of Tong Moua Xiong, the father of a 7th grade daughter here.

Another man worries about school safety, student access to drugs. “We have to make the preparations now to make sure that these kids stay out of trouble and make sure they stay in school,” said Yang Xiong, the father of a 7th grader, who is not related to the other Mr. Xiong.

As parents trickled out the school, Mr. Moore stopped people and asked about the meetings. The responses were favorable.

Mr. Stafford, the African-American father who recently moved here, said he wouldn’t second-guess the principal’s methods. “It’s the first time it’s ever been done,” he said.

After hearing that, Mr. Moore turned, his tone serious, and spoke of what lies ahead.

“It would have helped had we had more parents out here,” he conceded. And the media organizations that were so interested in the early controversy were barely visible tonight.

But, he continued, “the ones we did have will carry the message out there to the community. These are the worker bees. All I heard was, ‘We need more of this. We’ve got a lot of work to do.’”

A version of this article appeared in the May 08, 2002 edition of Education Week as Calif. School Sets Own Path on Achievement Gaps

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