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It takes a village to close the achievement gap

There is no debate that an achievement gap exists based on students' ethnic identity and socioeconomic status. Study after study confirms that these factors play a strong role in determining not only the level of education that a student will attain but also the opportunities in a child’s future. In my opinion, this achievement gap is the greatest injustice in our community and in our nation.

However, there is actually a debate in the school reform movement about the cause of the achievement gap--whether schools or communities are more responsible. One camp says that school determines the educational attainment of the child; the other says that it is mostly up to the family and community. I’ve read countless studies dating back to the famous 1966 Coleman Report, one of the largest sociological studies ever produced, which attributed differences in student achievement to family background. Other scholars have put the blame more squarely on schools. All told, the evidence suggests to me that it’s about fifty-fifty: if we want to close the achievement gap, we have to improve the support we provide our students both in our schools and in our communities.

As your superintendent of schools, I have spent most of the ink in my monthly column writing about ways we need to keep working to provide a better education for your children in our schools. However, we also need to look at the non-school factors influencing a child’s education and work together to address them.

If we truly want to close the achievement gap, here are my three wishes for how our communities would help.

First, we would provide access to comprehensive, integrated healthcare for all children. We would provide thorough medical exams for all children annually and follow-up care as needed--not just sports physicals for our athletes. We would provide routine mental health screening and intervention; after all, we lose far more teen lives to suicide than to sports injuries. Mental health challenges, including the debilitating effects of toxic stress and trauma, are among the greatest inhibitors to school success. Our youth need better access to substance abuse treatment: it isn’t necessarily true that poor minority kids use more drugs and alcohol; it is true that they have more access to the criminal justice system, and it isn’t serving them well. We would use evidence-based approaches to preventing teen pregnancies, knowing that a teen birth almost cuts in half the likelihood of a girl graduating from high school.

Second, we would address the economic factors getting in the way of children’s success in school: housing, food, transportation, and parents being able to earn a living wage. These all have a destabilizing effect on a child’s education.

Specifically, there are a couple high-leverage investments we could make to offset the effects of poverty that are cheaper than fixing the whole economy. Expectant moms and dads would have parent education, not only about effective parenting, but also helping them understand how to foster the development of cognitive and linguistic skills.

Families with low income children would have access to the kinds of out-of-school enrichment activities that their middle and upper income peers enjoy, like summer camps, piano lessons, and soccer leagues. These are activities where children develop the social skills and social capital which probably do more to determine life success than academic learning.

Third, all kids would have access to high-quality childcare and preschool. The most important developmental milestones occur in the first five years of life. It doesn’t make any more sense to start our formal education system five years after birth than it does to start laying railroad tracks five miles from the station. Probably no investment pays more in the life of a child than early childhood education.

If we are going to get any of these things done, we need to blur the distinction between schools and community and we need to integrate community programs and services with the schools.

There are many shining examples of cross-sector collaboration: the Roaring Fork School Based Health Centers in Basalt and Carbondale; school resource officers such as those provided by the local police departments; preschool classrooms in each of our elementary schools; nonprofit organizations like Aspen Center for Environmental Education teaching science, the Buddy Program offering mentors, and Valley Settlement engaging and empowering parents; and mental health providers like MindSprings and Hope Centers providing counseling services and crisis response. These are all community programs and services happening under our school roofs, and we need to build and expand on them.

We need a different framework based on the needs of the whole child. Currently, our regulatory structures, funding mechanisms, and professional affiliations keep us in our own lanes. For example, the Colorado School Performance Framework, our report card for accreditation, gives points for test scores, attendance, and graduation rates. Schools aren’t accountable for any indicators related to health, wellness, social- emotional learning, or family engagement. Health, transportation, law enforcement, and other sectors all have their own accountability measures, but nobody is holding us accountable for the well-being of the whole child.

They say it takes a village to raise a child. We need a better village framework, not just our  education system, if we want to close the achievement gap.

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