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Experts push parent involvement to help close achievement gap

Dr. Lourdes Ferrer (left) makes her presentatiSpanish wall wall crowd College DuPage Saturday September 29 2012. | JCunningham~For Sun-Times Media

Dr. Lourdes Ferrer (left) makes her presentation, in Spanish, to a wall to wall crowd at College of DuPage on Saturday, September 29, 2012. | Jon Cunningham~For Sun-Times Media

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Fox Valley’s least diverse schools

School District Percent students in majority

Millbrook Junior High School Newark 98% White

Newark Elementary Newark 96% White

Brady Elementary East Aurora 96% Hispanic

Newark High Newark 95% White

Gates Elementary East Aurora 93% Hispanic

Rollins Elementary East Aurora 93% Hispanic

Geneva High Geneva 92% White

Hermes Elementary East Aurora 91% Hispanic

Geneva Middle School North Geneva 91% White

Mill Creek Elementary Geneva 91% White

WBEZ Map:Diversity in our schools
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Updated: December 28, 2012 6:02AM

At Batavia High School last year, 73 percent of 11th grade white students tested proved themselves proficient at math. Among black 11th graders, just 18 percent tested proficient.

At Metea Valley High School in Aurora, 84 percent of white 11th graders tested were proficient in math and reading. Among black students, just 31 percent could read at level. And only 28 percent were proficient at math. Last year, white students outpaced black students at the school by at least 50 percentage points in every subject.

“Something is wrong with this picture,” Stephen Garlington, a consultant for the DuPage Regional Office of Education, told a room full of parents this fall at the College of DuPage’s African-American and Latino Parent Summit.

Even as student bodies grow more diverse, schools continue to struggle with how to engage black and Latino students, and how to encourage those students to thrive. Educators and parents agree that the picture — one in which black and Latino students fail to succeed in school alongside their white classmates — can only improve through collaboration among students, their families and their schools.

The achievement gap

At every high school in the Fox Valley with significant numbers of minority students, white students far outpace their black and Latino peers in test scores and other markers of college readiness.

Education professionals have a term for it: the achievement gap.

“It means,” said Garlington, pointing to a chart of two lines, representing the performance of black and white students, that diverge sharply in high school, “that all these kids will graduate, they’re juniors, they’re probably all going to graduate, but only one-quarter of black students will be proficient in reading. It means only one-quarter of black students will be ready for college.”

The achievement gap between students of different races is widest between black students and their peers, although Latino students also lag behind their white and Asian classmates.

The gap doesn’t just determine which students will get into top colleges; it also determines how students will fare as college freshmen.

“The students get to college and have to take remedial classes for no credit,” said Garlington. “They get frustrated and drop out, because none of them really could drop in.”

The role of parents

The African-American and Latino Parent Summit — led in English by Garlington and in Spanish by Lourdes Ferrer — asked parents to look at the role they play in their students’ education, and to step up their involvement in school life to close the achievement gap and create opportunities for their children.

“Do we have racism still? Of course, there’s some of that out there. But not to the extent that we still have an 80/20 achievement gap,” said Garlington. “I’m not ready to say this is the fault of the schools. If parents know better, they do better.”

Doing better, Garlington argued, is a matter of cultivating an environment of high expectations.

“How can we make (students) understand that being an academic high-achiever is not ‘acting white?’ ” he asked the crowd of a couple hundred parents, largely African-American, along with administrators, most of them white.

It’s a question, he said, that is at the heart of closing the achievement gap. Although plenty of students are struck by apathy in the teen years, black and Latino students are also faced with media images and peers that value black students for their basketball skills or their style, but not for their good grades.

Parents, Garlington said, can make the difference for their students by being and presenting their students with good role models, by creating high expectations, and by getting involved with school life.

The same can be said for the parents of Latino children, said Ferrer.

“Their parents do not know how to navigate the American education system,” said Ferrer. “Their parents don’t know, and they don’t know how to know. They feel (their children) have to work to help support the family, to pay the bills.”

Ferrer said that’s partly because students and their parents believe that just getting through high school is success.

“Students from Mexico or elsewhere say they are already a success. They will graduate, they can get a job that pays more than their parents earned back in Mexico. They might see themselves already as successful,” she said.

Still, Ferrer said that the best thing teachers and administrators can do — aside from working closely with parents to cultivate an atmosphere of learning in the home — is to focus on language acquisition, especially at an early age.

“The language barrier is a reality, but it’s not as big as people think,” Ferrer said. “How do you explain Asian students who speak a different language at home, but they are better at reading? The language spoken at home has an impact, but the greater impact is the way families view education and its importance.”

Not just the PTA

Parent groups aimed at involving more black and Latino parents are springing up across the Fox Valley.

Regenia Griswold, the mother of a sophomore at Neuqua Valley High School in Naperville, is a member of the school’s black parent organization PATHS — Parents and Teachers Helping Students Succeed.

Her daughter has “had a wonderful experience, an extremely supportive environment,” said Griswold. She attributes a lot of her daughter’s success to Neuqua’s principal, Robert McBride Jr., and his work with the parents of PATHS.

“Early parent involvement, setting high expectations. They have to feel self-motivated and feel a sense of inclusion. I think knowing the parents are engaged really helps,” Griswold said.

Griswold describes her own daughter as “an achiever” who takes advantage of rigorous courses.

And statistically, Neuqua Valley is beating the curve when it comes to the achievement gap — black and Latino students still lag behind their peers, but the gap is much smaller than at either of the Indian Prairie School District’s other two high schools, Waubonsie Valley and Metea Valley.

But a lot of factors, say educators and parents, can keep parents out of the PTA or even groups specifically designed for black and Latino parents.

“We need to be careful how we define parental involvement,” said West Aurora Superintendent James Rydland. “There can be many reasons a parent is not in a parent-teacher group, for example.”

Instead, he said that while West Aurora does have a multicultural advisory council, the district’s administrators focus on encouraging families to make learning a priority in their homes, from getting to school on time to developing good homework habits, to developing high expectations for children.

“Involvement doesn’t mean the PTA; it means you’re involved with your student,” he said.

But the parents of black students said they’d like to be included more, even if it means administrators working harder to reach out to them.

“I think that some parents may be focused on work and other commitments, or that maybe some parents feel intimidated,” said Griswold. “It depends on a lot of factors.”

The PATHS group at Neuqua overcame some of that intimidation, she said, by reaching out directly to African-American parents and telling them the school wanted them there and involved. In addition to the email blasts and phone trees that encourage every Neuqua Valley parent to get involved, the principal sends out additional calls and emails to black parents, asking them specifically to attend events and meetings.

“That makes a difference,” said Griswold.

The role of schools

Getting black and Latino kids to succeed alongside their peers is more than a matter of parental involvement, say both parents, experts and students.

In their book, “Voices: African-American and Hispanic Students’ Perceptions Regarding the Academic Achievement Gap,” Garlington and Ferrer target school administrators, recommending everything from implementing cultural sensitivity training for teachers to enrolling more black and Latino students in honors and AP coursework to recruiting more black and Latino teachers and administrators to serve as role models.

“When students view the school staff’s demographic landscape, they do not see a representation of themselves,” wrote Ferrer and Garlington.

Parents said that what they also wanted to see was more involvement from administrators and more training for teachers and other school staff who work with students.

“There has to be awareness, dealing or working with staff to understand the culture. The kids have different backgrounds and exposures, different ways of approaching situations and problems,” said West Chicago parent Doris Lambert.

She said her kids did face teachers with lower expectations, but her daughter had a counselor pushing her to explore her interests and seek out colleges.

“There has to be a sensitivity there,” Lambert said, “because there are some who push an African-American kid to only do so much.”

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