Davis school district staff works to close the achievement gap in elementary schools

DEVIN McHUGH / AGGIE
DEVIN McHUGH / AGGIE

Board of Education discusses current programs, prepares for district-wide strategies to address achievement gap issue

On April 7, the Davis Joint Unified School District (DJUSD) Board of Education met to discuss ways to close the achievement gap in Davis Elementary Schools. Despite having high Academic Performance Index (API) scores, DJUSD still has an achievement gap, or a performance disparity between low-income minority students and students who come from higher-income families.

According to Clark Bryant, associate superintendent of Instructional Services, about 19 percent of the students in the district qualify for free and reduced lunch, a service offered to students from families of low socioeconomic status. Additionally, 11 percent of the students are English learners.

The principals from Marguerite Montgomery Elementary School (MME) and Birch Lane Elementary School spoke to the board and explained the programs they have implemented at their schools to address the achievement gap issue. At Birch Lane Elementary, out of the approximately 600 enrolled students, 23 percent qualify for free or reduced lunch and 15 percent are considered English learners.

Birch Lane Elementary School Principal Jim Knight said staff have implemented Social Emotional Learning (SEL), which consists of a three-tier support system for students.

“Sometimes we get so focused with the academic side or social emotional side and we don’t realize how intertwined they are with each other,” Knight said at the meeting.

Knight explained that school-wide procedures work for about 80 percent of the students but about 15 percent need intervention, such as small group counseling or behavior contracts. Still, about 5 percent may need intensive intervention in the form of supported re-entry or crisis intervention.

“No learning takes place if a student is in crisis. When we have students that come to us with needs in one way or another we have to be able to support them for them to be able to be successful academically,” Knight said.

At MME, out of the 430 enrolled students, 58 percent qualify for free and reduced lunch, and 43 percent are English learners.

MME Principal Sally Plicka explained that their programs focus on literacy and reading. Staff developed a Summer Reading Program (SRP) and implemented the Two-Way Bilingual Immersion Program.

SRP consists of two facets that aim to enhance reading skills. One of the methods under SRP is “Bags Full of Books,” which provides targeted students with 10 to 12 books, of their choice and at their reading level, to take home on the last day of school and read over the summer.

“We know that over the summer our students lose about three months and sometimes about six months worth of their reading achievement from the prior year. When this happens year after year, the research shows that by sixth grade, they’re two years behind in their reading,” Plicka said at the meeting.

During the summer, students tracked their reading time, set goals and discussed their progress with school staff over the phone.  

Out of the 70 students who were selected to participate in the Bags Full of Books  program, 52 students provided useful data that allowed staff to evaluate the effectiveness of the program.

“88 percent maintained or improved their reading level over the summer [and] 12 percent experienced the typical summer slide,” Plicka said.

MME also implemented the Two-Way Bilingual Immersion Program to close the achievement gap for English language learner students. Students enrolled in the Two-Way Bilingual program are in classes are taught in both English and Spanish. In first grade, classes are taught 90 percent in Spanish and 10 percent in English, and by sixth grade, instruction is divided equally between English and Spanish. At MME, 220 students are enrolled in the program.

According to the research found by MME staff, the Two-Way Bilingual program not only closes the achievement gap at an early age, but also ensures that students excel academically.

“A well-implemented Two-Way Bilingual program brings students up to the level of their other English language learner peers who are in English-only programs by the third grade. By the sixth grade, it generally closes the gap completely, and by the twelfth grade, they are excelling and exceeding the expected outcomes for all of our students nationally,” Plicka said.

Plicka emphasized the importance of valuing bilingual students and balancing the number English and Spanish speakers in the program.

“These students who are Spanish-speaking natives are not coming to school with a deficit of not knowing English; they’re coming to school with a gift of knowing Spanish,” Plicka said.

DJUSD board member Tom Adams congratulated both schools for their unique approaches to closing the achievement gap.

“There is no one curriculum, one tool, one technology […] It’s really a community effort and the community is more than just the teachers and the students but it involves the parents and the entire town,” Adams said.

The board will continue to discuss the issue during the first meeting of every month. At the next meeting, the board will address the junior high and high school achievement gap goals and strategies.

Written By: CARLA ARANGOcity@theaggie.org