Strategies can help Tupelo reduce achievement gap

By Chris Kieffer | NEMS Daily Journal

TUPELO – Tupelo and its school district face a critical situation as they work to address the schools’ academic achievement gap between black and white students and between impoverished students and their peers.
As the Daily Journal outlined in a three-day series last week, white students in Tupelo score better than white students in most of the state on standardized tests, while black students in the city’s schools score in the bottom third of the state for black students on those tests. Tupelo’s gap was the fourth largest in the state according to a Daily Journal analysis that averaged all 12 of last spring’s standardized tests taken by third- to eighth-graders.
The gap is not unique to Tupelo nor is it new. But addressing it has become more urgent in a school district that has seen its demographics change significantly over the last 40 years. When Tupelo’s schools were integrated in 1970, 80 percent of its students were white. Today, 50 percent of them are black, 44 percent are white and 6 percent are other minorities.
Tupelo’s gap is the reason that a school district that was once among Mississippi’s highest-performing is now ranked in the middle of the state. Reducing the gap would not only improve the district’s ranking, it could also create more economic opportunities, improve equity, slow white flight out of the district and curb discipline problems the schools now face, said those interviewed for the series.
Getting results will require community conversations from which momentum and ideas can emerge. Last week’s “Bridging the Gap” series contained ideas from education experts, community leaders and schools that have had success in reducing their achievement gaps. This article aims to summarize several of those ideas in one place.
• Parental support is a vital factor to student success in school, several experts said. This also means that schools must examine whether parents from all groups truly feel welcomed and encouraged on their campuses. At the same time, the community can step in for students who aren’t getting parental support by offering mentor services that not only help students academically but make them feel supported and provide them with experiences, such as field trips, that allow them to grow.
• High expectations are cited by districts that have successfully closed achievement gaps. Thinking students are not capable of academic achievement often holds them back, many said.
• Schools may need to organize their resources to be sure that the neediest students are getting the help they need. This often means that some of the best teachers must be working with the students that are furthest behind, some say.
• Clinton’s school district has similar demographics to Tupelo’s and is ranked at the top of the state. One strategy cited by that district’s leaders is the use of several intervention teachers to help students who struggle to grasp various concepts.
• Many low-income students begin kindergarten far behind their peers because they have heard far fewer vocabulary words and have had much less exposure to educational activities than their classmates. An expansion of early-childhood education can help reduce that deficiency, many say.
• School calendars may need to be reconsidered, with more time possibly added to the school day or school year, several experts said.
chris.kieffer@journalinc.com

Talk about it
Join Daily Journal education reporter Chris Kieffer for an online conversation about the Daily Journal’s “Bridging the Gap” series from 10 to 11 on Monday morning at djournal.com.

FOR ARCHIVES OF THE SERIES, visit http://djournal.com/pages/education_special