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North Shore school districts teaming up to tackle achievement gap

March 26, 2014

While disparities continue to exist between minority students, economically disadvantaged students, and their peers, the "achievement gap" among public school students is an issue that the North Shore as a whole is uniquely qualified to address head on.

That was the thrust of a presentation and workshop hosted last week at Concordia University in Mequon and facilitated by Wisconsin Association of School Boards Executive Director John Ashley, who addressed a crowd of school board members, school administrators, and superintendents from across the North Shore.

While, taken as a whole, North Shore school districts are both high-ranking and high-achieving, less well-off and minority students continue to perform below their peers. Across the region, white and Asian students averaged a 25.4 and 23.4, respectively, on last year's ACT, while their black and Hispanic peers averaged 18.7 and 22.

According to Ashley, Wisconsin as a whole has some of the largest achievement gaps between black and white students, particularly among young boys when tested on reading.

And while there is no "silver bullet" when it comes to closing the achievement gap, Ashley said, the more local elected and school officials make the public aware of the problem, and the more they hold their schools accountable, the more they move in the right direction.

"This is the first time, that I'm aware, that (a group of school boards) has decided that it's an important enough issue to get together," Ashley said, addressing the crowd. "The first part of this issue is acknowledging that we have a problem. Getting together and talking about the achievement gap — that's powerful."

Pervasive problem

Regardless of overall achievement or ranking, there is an observable achievement gap in testing data in every North Shore district.

In Whitefish Bay, which posted the highest average ACT score of any Wisconsin public school district last year, white and Asian students averaged a 26.6 and 26.7, respectively, while black and Hispanic students averaged 19.8 and 23.9.

In Mequon-Thiensville, the top-rated Wisconsin K-12 district in last year's DPI report card rankings, white students averaged a 25.6 while black students scored a collective 18.5.

In Brown Deer, the home of the North Shore's most diverse high school student population, Hispanic students topped the scale with an average 22.9 ACT score, followed by white students, who averaged a 22.6. Asian students scored an 18.8 while black students averaged an 18.1.

Across the North Shore, economically disadvantaged students averaged a lower ACT score than their non-economically disadvantaged peers.

"The challenge for the North Shore is you already do a great job of educating students overall," Ashley said. "...The achievement gap, in this environment, adds extra pressure to address it."

Coming together

Ashley said a contributor to the achievement gap issue, among myriad individual things, is an expectation or acceptance by some school boards and among certain teachers that minority students won't achieve at the same level as their peers.

He said elected officials and school administrators have to hold themselves accountable for the success of every student.

"Every student can achieve, and it's our job to get them to that point," Ashley said. "No excuses."

Ashley added that, with their access and proximity to the various universities and economic centers of the region, North Shore districts are uniquely positioned to address the achievement gap.

To that end, various school board members and superintendents around the room said they were excited to be collaborating with their North Shore peers and leveraging their combined resources to tackle the problem.

Brown Deer Superintendent Deb Kerr commended the group for having the courage to come out and discuss the achievement gap, and said she will be happy to share with the "North Shore neighborhood" the strategies her district has employed in recent years.

"This isn't just a village issue," Kerr said. "It's a regional and state issue."

Shorewood School Board member David Cobb emphasized the importance of engaging the public and attempting to determine the extent and cause of the problem.

"We're going to make this a focus long-term," Cobb said.

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