San Diego Unified Superintendent Cindy Marten plans to take some bold steps to eliminate the achievement gap. Implied in her plan: She understands it’s time to rethink the “achievement gap” altogether.

The term refers to the disparity in academic achievement along racial and economic lines.

For example, data from the 2012 National Assessment of Educational Progress showed 53 percent of middle- to high-income eighth-grade math students in San Diego scored proficient or above on the exam — about 20 percentage points above the national average.

In sharp contrast, only 16 percent of their low-income peers met that mark — about 20 percentage points below the national average.

This is our community’s reality, and it’s holding us back.

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As a former low-income student who spent his entire academic career in San Diego public schools, I have a personal connection to this issue. But when the majority of our students — nearly 61 percent or roughly 300,000 children — qualify for free and reduced-price meals, this becomes a problem that affects all San Diegans, whether you live in Logan Heights or La Jolla.

When such a large number of students are struggling to break free of the gap, they’re at risk of not living up to their full potential. As a result, a large portion of our future local talent won’t be prepared to fuel growth of our innovation economy.

As executive director of Teach for America’s San Diego chapter, I’ve seen tremendous progress made in the decades since I was a struggling English-learner at Grant Elementary in Mission Hills.

I’ve seen schools that primarily serve low-income students, like the School for International Studies at San Diego High and The Preuss School at UCSD, consistently rank in the highest echelons of schools across the state and nation.

I’ve seen the innovation and persistence of after-school programs like Barrio Logan College Institute and Reality Changers pay off in a big way for students who overcome major challenges at home and in their communities. Many of these kids go on to earn degrees at top-tier colleges and universities.

Yet, for all the progress we’ve made, only a small fraction of our low-income students have access to these excellent schools and innovative programs. So we’re left asking: How do we move more quickly toward the day when all students have access to a first-rate education?

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Taking action is critical, but our action must stem from a clear understanding of the challenge we’re facing. That means taking another look at the term “achievement gap.” Many of us in the education community chose to scrap this phrase because it narrowly defines the challenge and what success looks like for students. In its place, we’re using the “opportunity gap.”

For years, leaders of communities most affected by educational disparities have highlighted how the “achievement gap” overemphasized strictly academic measures of success — test scores and graduation rates — while de-emphasizing or even ignoring more holistic measures of success in life.

Anyone with children can relate to this. When parents think about what they want for their children, none of them limits their aspirations to good grades and test scores. Parents want their children to have fulfilling lives, with the chance to prosper financially.

Ensuring San Diego’s 300,000 low-income students can succeed — academically and beyond — is a monumental task. But communities across the country have shown it can happen. It takes people coming together to direct energy and resources toward students.

Already there are collaborative efforts emerging in our city among parents, schools, nonprofits, businesses and government agencies. The day we close the opportunity gap in San Diego, hundreds of thousands of low-income students will have the access to well-rounded success they deserve. As a region, we’ll have access to the intellectual capital we need to continue to innovate.

With all of us working together, I’m confident we can figure out a way to provide all our students the support they need to get on this path.

David Lopez is executive director of Teach for America San Diego. Lopez’s commentary has been lightly edited for style and clarity. See anything in there we should fact check? Tell us what to check out here.

Catherine Green

Catherine Green was formerly the deputy editor at Voice of San Diego. She handled daily operations while helping to plan new long-term projects.

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