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Closing 'achievement gap' won't be easy

Teachers and principals need to gain a better understanding of different cultures if Federal Way Public Schools are to close their ethnic “achievement gap,” a task force told the School Board this week.

That means understanding the culture of poverty, and challenging students with a curriculum that better reflects all ethnic groups in the community, task force members said.

Superintendent Tom Murphy will take the Equity & Achievement Task Force’s recommendations — along with other research done on the local, state and national levels — and develop short- and long-term strategies for solving the problem. He will present them to the board in March.

Last May, Murphy released data showing disparities in African American, Hispanic, and Native American students’ achievement.

“We know that it is a national problem. It’s not a new problem. What we wanted to do is take a pulse of the community,” said District Spokeswoman Diane Turner, adding the group conducted an unscientific study of community sentiment and was not tasked with finding ultimate answers.

“I think that there is no quick fix. This issue is hundreds of years old, but you have to start somewhere,” Turner said.

Beginning in August, the 26-member task force contacted 145 people in the community to take its “pulse.”

The highlights

Here are the highlights of the group’s report:

• Poverty was identified as the strongest indicator of difficulties in school for students, and the group concluded that teachers must learn how to help children from poor families learn without lowering expectations for them. However, poverty alone cannot explain achievement gaps, which are found in schools across the country.

• Too few teachers and administrators of color to serve as role models for students.

• A lack of awareness among staff members of cultural differences may affect communication and instruction.

• A disparity in the way discipline is doled out. African American boys in high school feel they are singled out or watched more closely than other students. Korean students have noticed their black peers are punished more harshly.

Possible solutions

The task force’s recommendations include:

• More resources for schools with high numbers of at-risk children.

• Assigning top teachers and principals to such schools.

• Improving access to preschool programs for the disadvantaged.

• Making better efforts to accommodate parents of color, recent immigrants and poor families who feel alienated by the educational system.

• Improving discipline practices to provide students opportunities to bridge cultural norms.

• Entering partnerships with community-based organizations serving disadvantaged families, government, social service agencies, private businesses and foundations.

Turner said the task force’s report will help the district as it works to close its achievement gap.

“It’s a very thoughtful, kind of, let’s learn first process,” she said.

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