At Tuesday night’s Palo Alto Unified School District (PAUSD) meeting, the district board continued its discussion of an achievement gap at the district’s two high schools, comparing minority student performance with that of white and Asian American students.
The board also hosted the high schools’ principals Tuesday morning to hear their “High School Single Plans for Student Achievement.” Themes addressed at the meeting included social health and academic intervention.
“We have a challenge when it comes to achievement of kids with different racial and ethnic backgrounds,” PAUSD Superintendent Kevin Skelly said. “We’ve discussed the issue many, many times, so this meeting provides one other way to look at it.”
As a whole, African American and Hispanic PAUSD high school students are currently scoring worse and meeting fewer graduation requirements than their white and Asian American peers.
Skelly refuted the idea that the system has become bifurcated, noting that both students of color and non-minority students have access to the same unique advantages in their school district.
The district’s graduating class of 2011 self-identified as 57 percent white, 29 percent Asian American, eight percent Hispanic, two percent African American and four percent students of a separate racial category.
The students who did not meet the A-G Requirements necessary to be eligible for admission to a University of California (UC) were 51 percent white, 12 percent Asian American, 23 percent Hispanic and 10 percent African American. Students of a separate racial category formed the only group that held a constant rate at four percent.
A-G requirements include two years of history or social science, four years of English, three years of mathematics, two years of laboratory science, two years of a language other than English, one year of visual and performing arts and one year of an elective. All classes must be at the college preparatory level to fulfill requirements.
Last spring, Skelly proposed modifying some of the district’s graduation requirements to align with standards for UCs and California State Universities. The current PAUSD graduation requirements that would be affected are those for two years of mathematics, two years of science (not necessarily laboratory science) and one year of either foreign language or visual or performing arts.
At last night’s meeting, Skelly presented a PowerPoint entitled “Graduation Requirements: Preliminary Thinking on a New Approach,” outlining his proposal and the rationale behind it. He also presented “Algebra II Performance and Learning,” which showed lower results for African American and Hispanic students in California Standards Tests (CST) scores than their white and Asian American peers.
Board members and speakers from the community emphasized that high school success is also a reflection of elementary and middle school learning.
“The effects of stereotypes can be so costly,” PAUSD Vice President Dana Tom said. “I wish this were a simple issue to address. It requires vigilance, attention and a multi-pronged approach. This is a pre-K to 12 issue, not just a high school issue. The gap exists in elementary school as well.”
Although a specific plan has not been implemented at this point, the PAUSD community expressed a clear desire to address this disparity problem. The board said it has taken full note of the concerns of residents of Palo Alto.
“There are two gaps here,” said Ken Dauber of We Can Do Better Palo Alto when time was allotted for comments from the public. “We are ranked quite low for African American and Hispanic students while we are ranked quite high for white and Asian students. The hidden achievement gap is the one between Palo Alto District and other high achieving schools.”
According to PAUSD President Camille Townsend, Gunn High School principal Katya Villalobos spoke at the morning meeting about additional counselors and ways of intervening when students are not performing well academically. Townsend said she feels that further measures are also necessary for significant improvements to be made.
“I think we’re going to have a much better success rate if we start at the elementary school level,” PAUSD Board Member Melissa Baten Caswell said. “We can’t just attack it at the high school level.”