When I first landed in San Diego in fall 2013, the first San Diego Unified school board member I met was Scott Barnett.

Barnett, who left the board in 2014, was impolitic, always quotable and often right. And he told me something that day that has stuck with me: San Diegans, he said, are great at making plans, having lunches and creating task forces. They’re just terrible at actually getting anything done.

Learning Curve 2016-01 (2)

This comment is maybe most fitting when we apply it to the achievement gap.

Year after year, district officials point out that black and Latino students perform worse on tests than their white and Asian peers. And, year after, officials pledge to tackle the problem with tenacity and laser focus. (“Laser focus” has been an especially popular slogan for current school board members.)

But, despite the pattern of commitments and recommitments, actual progress has been marginal.

Let’s take a 10-year view of just one data point. In 2003, just 16 percent of black 11th graders in San Diego Unified scored proficient or advanced on the high school math section of the California Standards Test. In 2013, that number was the same – 16 percent.

By contrast, 42 percent of white 11th graders scored proficient or higher in 2003. By 2013, that number had risen to 53 percent.

These numbers form just a partial glimpse at an issue that has vexed school district leaders for 50 years. Whether we look at test scores, students enrolled in AP classes or the number of students who graduate prepared to enter college, a gap between white and Asian students and their black and Latino peers persists.

Around 2009, Wendell Bass, a retired principal and then-president of the Association of African American Educators, helped create a plan to reach more black students who were falling behind. Bass and AAAE took a proposal to the school board, who liked the idea. A task force was created, and a plan was later adopted by the school district.

The plan was given a stately title: The Blueprint to Accelerate the Achievement of African American and African Students. (A similar plan with a different name was created in the ‘80s).

The plan includes an extensive list of recommendations, including things like hiring more teachers of color, improving graduation rates and conducting more professional development for teachers, so they’re better equipped to teach in high-need schools.

Question: What’s the status of the Blueprint to Accelerate the Achievement of African American Students? – Omar Passons, interested reader, community member

There’s a short answer to this: The blueprint still exists and the district is still trying to implement it. The longer answer involves fleshing out why progress has stalled.

On Monday night, parents, teachers and district officials crammed into the parent center at Lincoln High for one of the regularly scheduled task force meetings the district holds to get to business on the blueprint.

A handful of principals from schools in the Lincoln Cluster – which includes the middle and elementary schools that feed into Lincoln – presented some of the work they’ve been doing at their schools. Oak Park Elementary principal Reashon Villery, for example, talked about the way they observe students interacting in class and described their outreach efforts to family members or foster parents.

At Baker Elementary, principal Kathleen Gallagher is strategically targeting 17 black students, even putting their photos on a flyer so parents and teachers could put faces to the efforts.

Efforts sounded strategic and robust. Then student scores were posted, and it was clear the blueprint was not delivering.

Scores from the last year’s tests, the first scores tied to the Common Core Standards, showed the old gaps persist. In some schools, black students fare worse or marginally better than English-learners who, by definition, are not fluent in English.

Despite years of task force meetings and district officials who claim to prioritize the achievement gap, progress has been – at best – marginal.

The question is why.

We need to first acknowledge the complex cocktail of issues that results in some students entering school behind their peers. Housing, poverty, language barriers – of course these things matter – make it difficult for students who are behind to catch up to their peers. And the concerns are most acute in the schools with the highest concentrations of black and Latino students.

There are also practical issues with the blueprint itself. For example, it needs to be updated. The high school exit exam, once a graduation requirement, has been included in the blueprint as a measure of success. But last year the state killed the exit exam. Vernon Moore, executive director of the district’s office of youth advocacy and the district’s point person on the blueprint, said the updated plan and refocused efforts should help schools make gains.

Yet, the central problem involves a deeper disconnection. Essentially, the blueprint task force came up with recommendations and is part of a regular group that meets with district staff to assess progress.

But the task force’s recommendations are not binding. That is, there’s no rule that says the district actually has to implement the recommendations. So you have a group of people regularly meeting in good faith, but with nothing to say that work will lead to anything concrete.

And even if more principals would like to implement many of the task force recommendations, there’s no guarantee they’ll get extra money from the district to actually do so.

Bass, who is still on the task force, sees the problem as cyclical.

“They’re talking about revamping the blueprint now, but what’s the point of revamping it when they haven’t done anything in the first plan?” said Bass. “We’ve gotten to a point where, if you’re not going to do anything recommended in the blueprint, do something.”

All principals are welcomed at the task force meetings, but Bass said only a handful of principals show up. So the plans might get kicked between the task force and the principals, but recommended strategies are implemented in few schools. Nonexistent is any sort of consistency between schools.

Bass describes the problem in medical language.

“You’ve got kids in these neighborhoods just dying educationally. If that was happening in schools north of (Interstate) 8, you know they’d have figured this out by now. If you’ve got a tumor, you’re not going to fix the problem by ignoring the tumor.”

Bass wonders what it will take for the district to move with more urgency, short of a lawsuit. Not that he’s threatening one. But he knows a few things for sure: “I’m not playing with these people, Mario. We need to hold people’s feet to the fire.”

Bass acknowledges we can’t lay the entire burden at the feet of principals and teachers. Parent involvement is a crucial element, and will become even more important moving forward. The district is supposed to create budget decisions based, in part, on the input of parents. But if parents don’t advocate – either because they’re not involved or don’t know what to request – their needs may be overlooked.

Ed Reads of the Week

• Bridging a Digital Divide that Leaves Schoolchildren Behind (New York Times)

The Times takes us to Texas this week for an important look at how the digital divide means for children whose families can’t afford home internet.

In basic terms, it means they take a three-hour bus route home instead of the short one – because the bus has free Wi-Fi, which they can access on their smart phones. Otherwise, kids wouldn’t have a way of accessing their homework, which digital-minded teachers are increasingly distributing online instead of in class.

Other students opt to hang out on the street corner – because that’s where they can access the free internet from nearby businesses. The Federal Communications Commission will vote in March to repurpose $2 billion a year toward Lifeline, a national program designed to make Internet accessible in low-income homes.

• The Secret to School Integration (New York Times)

Despite integration efforts and court rulings, public schools nationwide are extremely racially and socioeconomically segregated.

“In some ways, it’s as if Brown v. Board of Education never happened. Increasing residential segregation and a string of unfavorable court cases are partly to blame. But too many local school officials are loath to admit the role that their enrollment policies play in perpetuating de facto segregation,” writes the Times.

• Broken Discipline Tracking Systems Let Teachers Flee Troubled Pasts (USA Today)

You’d think teachers would undergo the most rigorous background checks of just about any profession. You’d be wrong.

In this investigation, USA Today finds major problems with the teacher-screening systems used to ensure the safety of children in more than 13,000 school districts.

“The patchwork system of laws and regulations — combined with inconsistent execution and flawed information sharing between states and school districts — fails to keep teachers with histories of serious misconduct out of classrooms and away from schoolchildren. At least three states already have begun internal investigations and audits based on questions raised during the course of this investigation,” reports USA Today.

Mario was formerly an investigative reporter for Voice of San Diego. He wrote about schools, children and people on the margins of San Diego.

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