Bridging the Gaps

By Kendall Hitch and Esther Seawell

All students are presented the same information, offered the same classes, and take the same test.

But, there are still specific groups of students who tend to do better in school than others, creating what are now termed achievement gaps.

“I think these achievement gaps are the most significant social justice issue in our country,” Superintendent Daniel Nerad said. ” They are not unique to Birmingham but Birmingham has its own unique story relative to gaps.”

According to Nerad, there are three main groups that are evident in Birmingham Public Schools based on district data.

“Our groups that we’re concerned about are our African American students, our students with disabilities, and relatively low number of low income students in our district,” Nerad said.

Nerad said that the way the district determines the gaps is by seeing if students have met a certain standard that is put forward every year. The standards are different for different age groups. Principal Dee Barash said that standardized tests are the main tool used to determine gaps at Seaholm.

“When we talk achievement gap data, we’re looking at a number of kinds of data points, ACT scores, MME scores, not so much performance in class but more of the PLAN and Explore,” Barash said.

Barash said that beyond the three groups examined by the district, Seaholm also looks at students who are new to Birmingham Public Schools and special education students.

According to Barash, the recent school climate survey indicated that poor academic performance might be a result of students feeling like they don’t belong.

“We really looked at the data to see that students that are new to BPS are the ones that marked that [they didn’t feel valued at school] above and beyond everybody else,” Barash said. “55 percent of the students that marked that they didn’t feel valued were new to BPS in the last 5 years.”

Senior Caroline Stacey, new to Seaholm her sophomore year, said that the social adjustment was the most difficult part of her transition.

“It was hard being a new student in a big school where everyone had been with each other for years and where most hadn’t had theexperience of moving,” Stacey said.

While Seaholm’s achievement gaps are not nearly the largest in the nation, Barash said that it’s important to acknowledge them.

“When you talk about a gap at Seaholm, it’s a little different than a gap from some other places, but they still exist,” Barash said.

Assistant principal Deb Boyer said that the typical Seaholm student with an achievement gap differs from the typical student in one of these gaps.

“A lower achieving student at Seaholm, standardized test score wise, typically is doing better than a lot of lower achieving students somewhere else,” Boyer said.

Barash said that it is also important to realize how achievement gaps can affect a student’s experience in school.

“An impact for anyone that has an achievement gap is that it makes it more difficult to be successful in the classroom and it may impact your ACT score and therefore your ability to get into schools that you’re interested in,” Barash said.

As for solutions, Boyer, Barash, and Nerad all agree that these problems aren’t going to be solved overnight.

Nerad said that the problem with making programs to lessen achievement gaps is that there is no scientific data to connect academic deficiencies to a specific trait in students.

“It has to be a social construct,” said Nerad.

Barash said that solutions are still in progress at Seaholm, but in the meantime additional hours of after school tutoring and a new academic lab have been added to offer extra assistance.

“Academic lab has changed a lot in the last two years, it’s going to change again,” Barash said. “We’re looking at it to be primarily taught by math and science teachers and we would pull our English teachers out and do reading intervention.”

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