Approximately one year ago, the PW School District was alerted by the Office of Civil Rights (OCR) to an overrepresentation of minority students in special education and in English language learner (ELL) classes. The district resolved to go beyond meeting minimal standards and strive for equity for all students. In a progress report given at the board of education meeting on May 22, consultant Daniel Baron highlighted the multi-pronged efforts and noteworthy results that have occurred since that decision about achieving equity was made. While meeting OCR standards seems to be nearly completed, there is significant work that lies ahead, especially after hearing the comments of students, parents, and others citing unfair treatment in schools, perceptions of bias and prejudice, especially from other students, and little classroom attention paid to the contributions of minorities.
Baron presented the good news first. "I'm happy to report that if PW's only intent was to comply with the resolution agreement with OCR, our work is close to completion," he declared. And though the consultant said he'd "never before worked in a district where the disparities between the haves and the have-nots are so great," he recognized that PW "has the talent, resources, and the potential to serve as a beacon to so many communities living in the darkness of inequity, ignorance, and fear." A representative of OCR later added, "In my nine years at OCR, I've never seen a school district as enthusiastic and committed to address these issues, and committed to equity for all students."
Over this last academic year, the goals of equity and access for all students were transformed into an action plan, and many steps were taken at all levels. ELL student data was examined to ensure equal opportunity for inclusion in enrichment programs. As a result, an expert was hired, departments conducted meetings to prepare students for high level work, and guidance and teaching staff collaborated to identify students with special talents, and offer supportive services. Baron reported that 8th grade screenings were held, to identify Latino candidates for AP classes. In addition, funding was provided for the translation of handbooks, for parenting workshops, and for staff development so that faculty could better support and coach minority and ELL students to be successful.
Among the many other successful outcomes of the hard work of many, were:
* A task force of OCR, special and general educators, ELL teachers, parents, and community members, meeting monthly, making recommendations to enhance the adjustment of students having difficulty in school, providing staff with resources and strategies, and involving parents meaningfully.
* A resource guide for teachers, with ways to modify instruction and methods to assess special education student progress
* The formation of the Alliance for Equity, Access and Respect, (EAR), a grassroots organization, comprised of social service agencies, clergy, parents, and other concerned citizens, to "support the needs of the minority population."
* The emergence of the Latino Parents Association, a group of parent advocates
* A drop of 50% in the referral rate to CSE at the Daly school
* High school teachers serving as mentors to minority students
* Each district school has a task force examining issues related to equity
* Parent focus groups in every school, to increase minority involvement
One specific goal, articulated in a handout, was "to ensure that we develop a proportionate and equitable representation of all of our students in enrichment, gifted, honors, advanced placement and special education programs." Toward this end, they recommended revising the criteria to enter the PEP (enrichment) program, beginning with altering the definition of giftedness to agree with that of the U.S. D.O.E. The latter's definition includes students who demonstrate high performance capability in intellectual, creative, and artistic areas, or possess an unusual leadership capacity, or excel in specific academic fields. Baron stressed utilizing additional tools like performance-based assessments, the input of teachers and parents, and student interviews, to increase the number of minority youth in gifted programs. "The identification (of these students) should rely on professional judgment rather than strict quantitative procedures, to make it more valid and inclusive," he explained. "It's not a question of how smart is this kid; the question is, how is this kid smart?" he argued. Still, though Baron focused on including "other forms of intelligence," like interpersonal potential, Dr. Albert Inserra said "the standards of success and stepping stone is academic rigor."
With admitted trepidation, Baron also spoke of the bad news. The feedback and quotations he shared, from students, parents, and others, revealed overwhelmingly negative perceptions of the attitudes toward, and the treatment of minorities and others in PW schools and in the larger community. Baron stressed that these were individual perceptions, and thus not always the truth, but the remarks commanded attention nonetheless.
From African-American individuals, Baron read comments like "We're getting left behind" and "Our kids are sent out of district." "They want to keep us the have-nots," another person said, and "when we come to [school] functions, they look at us like we are foreigners." For another person, "The #1 issue is the behavior of teachers toward students." Baron quoted comments from the Latino community next, and they were equally disturbing. "There is a deep-seated resentment in this community toward us," said one. "There is a tacit acceptance of racism, discrimination, and prejudice, with no community response," remarked another. "The neighborhood people want the schools to play the role of the immigration agency," another had said. "You cannot imagine how much they hate us. The administration needs to know how much Hispanic kids feel hated," read another. And finally, "There is friction at home between parents and kids. As children become proficient in English, they won't speak Spanish at home," another revealed.
Quite a few students commented on the atmosphere at Weber Middle School. One African-American student, for example, said, "We have only two African-American teachers in the whole school...We get punished more severely. If you are black, you started the fight." Another African-American said, "The students are racist, not the teachers...I hear it so much, I don't even notice it anymore." For Latino students at Weber, their perception of the situation is just as troubling. "If you're a Latino, you are called a loser, a thief, or a poor person." "We never talk about our Hispanic heritage" another added about the middle school.
For some Latino students at Schreiber H.S., they've observed that "Spanish kids are not in smart classes." Parents feel left out, especially those who do not speak English, and whose work schedules do not permit them to attend daytime school meetings. One student had this to add: "I'm the example of a lot of Spanish kids. I want to better myself. Some of the kids think you just want to be white, but most of us really want to make something of ourselves."
Baron summarized the wishes of African-Americans as fourfold. First, they'd like to have more culturally relevant courses. Better support for children and more African-American staff were also frequently mentioned. Lastly, there was an expressed desire for a change in the bus schedule, "so we aren't always last to leave."
Baron also interviewed students he referred to as "Anglo." Anglo students at Weber commented that "everyone is made fun of -- it's not just African-Americans." But others spoke of separations in the town. "PW is incredibly divided," said one student. "Everyone knows who lives where." Another said, "A lot of kids get made fun of because they are a different race." But the perception is a bit different at the high school, or so it seemed to a group of Anglo students. "If there is racism, it's unspoken," one student said. "The after-school activities bind students together," another remarked. When it came to the faculty, "I don't feel that teachers give them [minorities] credit, or have expectations they'll succeed," said one student. "It's all about expectations (of teachers and administrators)" said another. "They have high expectations for us, and low ones for them."
Baron provided comments from teachers and community members as well, speaking on a range of issues. Some teachers cited the enormous, unmet need for time to meet with colleagues, which would benefit students in a variety of ways. "They get classified because we can't meet their needs. We could do much better if there was time to meet," one teacher said.
Baron provided a list of recommendations that encompassed areas like community outreach, personnel, technology, curriculum and instruction. During the meeting, he said that perhaps the top priority is the creation of a new position: a special assistant for community relations. Conducting outreach to low income parents, case management for the same, orientation for families as they enter the school system, and coordinating with other agencies, this position is seen as key to welcoming, educating, and supporting families. Another highlighted recommendation was the need to establish meeting time during the school day for "collaboration between bilingual, special education, mainstream teachers, counselors, and social workers."
Among the other recommendations were the recruitment of African-American and Latino school district employees, support of the development of a technology lab at Littig House, the exploration and funding of access to technology at home for every student, and the encouragement of heterogeneous grouping in all schools and programs.
With the strong commitment of the school district and the encouragement of the consultant, PW schools seem to be moving ahead in seeking equity for every student. At this moment in time, the situation can be viewed as the classic question: is the glass half empty, or half full? The potential, though, is enormous. As one Schreiber student put it, "diversity is a tremendous asset. It enriches us. It's too bad we don't take better advantage of our diversity."