ASD Works to Bridge Proficiency Gaps for Students of All Races
The Anchorage School District has a long-term vision: making sure 90 percent of students are proficient in math, reading and writing.
But test scores indicate that vision may be short-sighted due to substantial achievement gaps by some students.
An annual report card that tracks student proficiency is broken down into categories, including race.
Even when students are in the very same classroom, there are big differences between the performance of Caucasian students compared to their classmates of color.
While Gladys Wood Elementary School is similar in size and mission to its counterparts across the city, what makes the school stand out demographically is how many of its students are economically disadvantaged.
ASD reports that economically disadvantaged students -- ones with a family income less than the minimum required for food stamps, health insurance or public housing -- make up nearly 46 percent of the district's overall population.
At Gladys Wood, 61 percent of students fit that profile.
"Parents are working a couple of jobs or are having a difficult time finding a job, that certainly has an impact," said Audrey Chapman, the school's principal.
That has a measurable impact in the classroom.
Scores indicate more than a 20 percent dip in test scores for students from a home that is economically disadvantaged.
Proficiency by race also show differences.
Reading proficiency among Caucasian students in ASD is 90 percent compared to Asian students who are at 76 percent.
Caucasian students are 87 percent proficient in writing compared to 59 percent for Alaska Native and American Indian students.
In math, African-American students are roughly 54 percent proficient compared to Hispanic peers who are almost 64 percent proficient. Their Caucasian classmates are 83 percent proficient.
Only 22 percent of Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander students are proficient in science compared to 78 percent of Caucasian students.
Many educators say the localized results prove a direct correlation between an education and the challenges students face outside of school.
"The disparities seem to be pretty closely connected to income, socioeconomic status," said UAA sociology professor Karl Pfeiffer, who is also a parent. "It's not unusual to find school performance is poorer in poor neighborhoods,"
Pfeiffer said a student's race and ethnic diversity has an impact on their performance, at least in terms of perception.
"One of the things I've heard some of my students complain about, they say a lot times minority students get accused of 'acting white' in these less diverse kinds of climates and environments," he said, which he believes acts as a disincentive to school performance.
ASD Superintendent Ed Graff said he encourages staff to embrace diversity, something that is done in part by necessity.
More than 93 different languages are spoken by students.
"We take the opportunity to address what those individual needs are for the students," Graff said.
The district's Indian Education program works with more than 8,000 Alaska Native and American Indian students.
"One of the things these kids do is they don't necessarily communicate verbally by raising their hands and asking for help," said Doreen Brown, executive director of ASD's Title VII Indian Education program.
"They give you subtle signs like they might just give you a glance or putting the pencil down and they are just sitting there not engaging."
Teachers should be aware of language and cultural barriers as well as differences in nonverbal communication.
"Educating teachers on how to recognize that and embrace that and making sure they provide those type of opportunities for our youth," Brown said.
But connections and improved communication is not only needed in the classroom.
"It's more than ethnicity, its more than language," Chapman said. What happens if a parent only finds out their kid is struggling three days before grades are counted? he said.
"That's not putting me in a position to help much," he said.
ASD's hopes to level the playing field for all students. A group effort between students, parents and teachers is under way.
Statewide results show similar trends in reading, writing, and math all over Alaska.