What began as several issues in need of examination, according to the Office of Civil Rights, has evolved into a sweeping district-wide program to foster equity and success of all students of the PW School District, regardless of race, ethnicity, and family income. After months of study by the superintendent, administrators, school board members, and a national consultant, the exciting initiative to have all children successfully meet higher expectations was unveiled at the Nov. 14 board of education meeting.
The District was alerted to the over-representation of minorities in special education and among English Language Learners (formerly referred to as English as a Second Language) by the Office of Civil Rights. They found, for example, that while African-American students made up 3 percent of the total student population, they were 9 percent of the students in special education. Not quite as pronounced were the figures for Hispanic students; while these students were 14 percent of the total student body, they were, nonetheless, 19% of the students in special education.
Moreover, the Office of Civil Rights found that African-American and Hispanic children were disproportionately placed in the most restrictive settings, and were referred to Special Education at disproportionately higher rates. The district leadership resolved not only to adjust areas of inequity and meet the requirements of the Office of Civil Rights, but to go well beyond it, by enacting a comprehensive program that fosters equal opportunities for all students to succeed. "This is a vision of accomplishment for all students," said national consultant Daniel Baron. "We are not going to lower our standards; we are raising them."
Dr. Albert Inserra, superintendent of schools, said the purpose of the program was "to demonstrate our resolve to create a model school district based on the high expectations and performance of all students, regardless of race, ethnicity, or family income." The goals include creating a district-wide understanding of access and equity, and ensuring the development of "a proportionate and equitable representation of all our students in enrichment, gifted, honors, AP, and special education programs." Each goal has been, or will be, translated into action steps and timelines, with a report to the school board due by the end of the school year. Dr. Inserra described an example of one specific activity: the collection of data on the technology divide in the community. Later, they plan to suggest strategies to address any gaps related to minority resources. "The school district hopes to close the gap," he said.
The district's plan also calls for "engaging all students in stimulating and culturally relevant educational experiences throughout the district." In addition, they hope to examine the use of traditional standardized tests while increasing the use of non-traditional performance-based assessments so that "all students have vehicles to demonstrate success," it was explained.
A major portion of the initiative is the desire to engage families in education. Thus, the district plans to create a climate for family as well as community participation in schools, and improve the family-community school-student partnership. Specific activities might include parent workshops, and parent focus groups in each building to increase minority parent involvement.
Consultant Daniel Baron, who has spent significant time interviewing and meeting educators, parents, and numerous others in the community, distilled some key points from these discussions. "The community wants to do the right thing," he stated. "They want every child, regardless of background, to be successful." Additionally, he found that there was great support for creating enrichment opportunities for all students. Among teachers, he discerned a strong level of commitment to heterogeneous grouping, but increases in class size were seen as unfavorable. An overriding concern of many, Mr. Baron explained, was whether this was just another fad. Some expressed fear that administrative and board of education support would fade and this program would not become a reality.
Emphasizing that it will take time, energy, and resources to enact this initiative, he suggested three important changes in thinking for the program to be effective. As his first, he suggested a shift from "being concerned to being influential," that is, making an impact. Also significant is viewing access and equity "not as lowering our standards, but raising them." Lastly, he maintained that we must focus and build on students' strengths. "Together, we can meet the needs of all kids," he asserted.