Katherine Appy: Tackling the school achievement gap in Amherst
The school year has begun and change is afoot. Several new programs directly address a long-standing educational failure that weakens schools throughout the nation, including our own — the achievement gap.
These unequal educational results, often rooted in class and racial inequities, are tragic, but not inevitable. A concerted effort to generate greater educational access and equity should be embedded in all we do.
This fall’s initiatives will support and challenge students and families inside and outside the classroom:
• Steps to Success. This is a program designed to promote educational equality by providing support to students too often left behind. It builds stronger relations among schools and students, parents, guardians and community partners. Headquartered in the district’s new Family Center, it is staffed by full-time liaisons and mentors who reach out to students and their families to help them get the services and support they need to succeed. These resources include social services and staffing by Family Outreach of Amherst — supports not found in most public schools.
• Communication about inequality. You can’t solve problems without naming them, discussing them and taking action. At the high school, Calvin Terrell, a social justice educator who leads conversations about race, class and discrimination, ran a recent training session with all students and faculty. Over the summer, he conducted a four-day workshop with a diverse group of high school students and adults. His work encourages student voices to emerge. At the middle school, student discussion groups are also talking about these issues. Later this month, the district is hosting a conference of the National Minority Student Achievement Network. Twenty-three network districts will attend and participate. Amherst network scholars have been among the student leaders of these important conversations.
• Reforms in pedagogy and student evaluation. Teacher collaboration and teamwork have proven to be a very effective means to improve pedagogy. It especially helps teachers identify the need for targeted support for struggling students as well as those who seek additional challenges. These reforms are now in place along with regularly scheduled professional development. Also in place are data-driven assessment practices that help teachers identify student needs in a more precise, nuanced and timely way than state-mandated testing.
These concrete steps are promising, and only the beginning. Meeting the needs of all kids is within our sight. But any change is hard, even positive change. Some people balk at change because it requires the loss of familiar ways of thinking and acting. Others resist change because it does not go far enough. Yet partial change need not represent the abandonment of larger goals. At every stage the success of change, big or small, largely depends on a solid foundation of community support.
Teachers are often wonderful models of how to embrace the challenge of change. They face it every year — new students, new parents, new curriculum and new expectations from the administration and the state. They have embraced the district’s mission to regard any child’s failure as their own. Teachers have taken on an ambitious set of changes. They deserve our support. I hope the community will rally behind them and the important reforms they are charged with enacting so we might finally make serious gains in righting the inequalities in our educational system.
Katherine Appy is chair of the Amherst School Committee and a member of the ; Regional School Committee.