It is one thing to say it is important to close the achievement gap between African American and Hispanic students and their white and Asian counterparts. It's another to figure out how to do it.
New Montgomery County Superintendent Jerry Weast is wasting no time in calling for plans of action. He has asked principals to come up with ways to increase the number of students taking college entrance exams and to boost their scores. Weast also requested principals' strategies to help more students do well in Algebra I.
Weast himself is developing a plan to reorganize the often unwieldy central office, which he is expected to present to the Board of Education in October. He also has set staff members to work on an overall educational plan that would aim to close the achievement gap and improve performance for all students.
At their annual retreat this weekend, Board of Education members are expected to focus on closing the gap as part of their long-term goals for the system.
With such intense focus on the issue, many principals are rethinking the goals and objectives for their own schools, which are due Friday as part of the school improvement plans they must file every year.
"The principals . . . hear Dr. Weast talk about closing the achievement gap, and they're hearing him loud and clear," said Board of Education member Nancy J. King (Upcounty).
While many principals said they already have been working on ways to close the gap, raise test scores and reach out to lagging students, Weast's call to action is forcing them to focus more intensely.
"Closing the gap has loomed large in our planning over the last two to three weeks," said Quince Orchard High School Principal Dan Shea. "We're changing our emphasis."
For instance, Quince Orchard long has had a preparation course for the Scholastic Assessment Test. This year, the school is adding after-school programs and tutorials.
The school also is starting to offer tutoring for students who need extra help in Algebra I, a critical math course that is considered a gateway to higher math courses. Another addition is the start of an academic adviser program for all athletes, who sometimes struggle with course work, Shea said.
"Overall, I sense a greater urgency to perform at an even higher level," Shea said. "Throughout the summer at meetings, as brief as they were, it's clear [Weast's] expectations are radically different. Things are changing."
Shea acknowledges Quince Orchard has some work to do.
While students' overall average SAT score has increased 37 points, to 1104, over the past three years, the gap is still apparent for African Americans and Hispanics. Average scores dropped 20 points for African Americans last year. And their 1999 average score of 963 falls below the 1132 for Asians and 1124 for white students.
Hispanic students at Quince Orchard scored an average of 1014 on the SATs last year, up from 981 the year before.
Shea and his staff analyze the scores every year, watching fluctuations, looking for reasons behind drops and then finding ways to help individual students. For example, when the average score for Asian students dropped 90 points one year, Shea sifted through the data to find a recently arrived immigrant who had a near-perfect math score but finished close to the bottom on English. Teachers began working intensively with the student to better the student's language skills, Shea said.
At Watkins Mill High School, Principal Louis Martinez said closing the achievement gap has long been a primary goal, along with increasing character development, better integrating technology into the classroom and increasing the number of African Americans and Hispanics who take honors and advanced placement classes.
"We have already recognized the need to close the gap and are addressing it," Martinez said. One of the biggest challenges has been trying to change the mind-sets of teachers and staff members, he said.
"We're trying to stop the blame game, where teachers can say, 'This is how we got them, it's not our fault,' " he said. "We're trying to get them to see a new opportunity to help shape a member of our community."
At Gaithersburg High School, Principal Fred Evans said courses have been added to help students prepare for the SAT and its precursor, the PSAT. And he plans an all-day meeting with staff members next month to find ways to get more intensive help to the students who really need it.
"This is not a new focus. But Dr. Weast's emphasis on the achievement gap has helped us all refocus. That's good. We've got to close it," Evans said.
"We can't just say African Americans and Hispanics aren't doing well because of history and leave it at that. We have to move forward."