Achievement Gap Obliterated

DSCN0896.JPGschoolreformlogo.jpgOne city public school did it. Forty-three to go.

The school in question, Davis Street 21st Century Magnet, has eliminated the achievement gap. How? Students like Tiana Grant, teachers like Erin King (they’re pictured together), and moms like Dorothea Jaynes have relentlessly worked together to reach higher. Tiana went from a low scorer to a star student in just one year.

Davis succeeded in boosting scores enough to become the first New Haven public non-charter school to see its African-American fifth-graders do as well as all Connecticut fifth-graders on standardized tests.

The news came this past week in a report from New Haven-based ConnCAN, an education reform group. Several New Haven public and charter schools made the report’s “top ten” lists for student achievement. (Click here for complete results.)

One focus of the report—and of ConnCAN’s work—is the “achievement gap”: the lag in performance between white and non-white students. New Haven Mayor John DeStefano has made closing that gap a top priority of his emerging citywide public school reform initiative. School reformers here and nationwide have made closing the gap their top priority; some call it this generation’s top civil rights crusade.

The achievement gap is particularly acute in New Haven. Statewide it’s dramatic enough: Only 34 percent of African-American fifth-graders in non-charter public schools reached “goal” (the expected level of accomplishment) on Connecticut Mastery Tests, compared to 62 percent for students of all races. Only 32 percent of New Haven African-American fifth-graders did. And only 27 percent of New Haven eighth-graders in non-charter public schools did.

But not at Davis: 62.6 percent of the school’s African-American fifth-graders made goal on the most recent exams, slightly higher than the overall state average, almost double the average for African-Americans.

“They’ve closed the achievement gap,” declared Marc Porter Magee, chief operating officer at ConnCAN.

Magee’s group looked at how African-American fifth-graders throughout the state performed on standardized tests covering all subjects. It examined the 85 elementary schools that have at least 20 African-American students. It ranked the schools based on how many students reached state “goal,” not just “proficiency,” since “goal” represents the level the state expects students to reach.

Davis’s fifth-graders ranked fourth statewide. (New Haven’s Elm City College Prep, a charter school, ranked first.)

The Independent has been checking in this academic year on Davis, a leading light in a struggling school system searching for clues for how to pull off a successful, nationally watched reform drive.

As with other of Davis’s successes, the school wiped out the achievement gap through involving parents, staying on top of data, and pushing students one-on-one to overcome obstacles.

Exhibit A: Tiana Grant’s turnaround year.

Bathroom Break

DSCN0874.JPGTiana, who’s now 11 and in sixth grade, made the biggest leap last year.

She started out the year doing poorly on tests, not doing her homework, resisting fifth-grade teacher Erin King’s efforts to have her participate in class.

Tiana said she was “scared” in class, scared kids would laugh at her. She had transferred to Davis a year earlier when her family moved from Hamden to the New Haven side of Elizabeth Street, which straddles the border of both towns. She didn’t know the kids well yet. And she didn’t know her times tables.

Tiana felt doubly intimidated because Davis has a challenging math curriculum. It teaches problems well beyond those covered on standardized tests for the grade. Tiana thought she recognized problems from her older sister’s high-school homework.

One day early in the year King had the class play a math version of the game “All Around the World.” Two students would get a card with a problem. The first one to answer moved on; the other sat down.

“I went to the bathroom so my turn didn’t come,” Tiana recalled in a conversation at the school Wednesday.

That surprised King; she hadn’t known that. She had known Tiana was struggling. “She didn’t have confidence,” King recalled. “She didn’t want to risk being wrong.”

King dealt with the problem partly by reinforcing to the whole class that laughing at kids would not be tolerated. She also pointed at her own mistakes at the blackboard. The idea was to create a “safe” environment for kids to participate without worrying about giving wrong answers.

Meanwhile, King sent home notices each night to parents reporting on whether students completed or failed to turn in homework. Students were supposed to return the forms to class with their parents’ signatures. Tiana wasn’t doing her homework—and wasn’t turning in her forms.

King called Tiana’s mother Dorothea Jaynes. Mom came in for a meeting with King and Tiana. She laid down the law: Tiana must do her homework. And she must return the forms. No wiggle room.

It turned out Tiana was feeling neglected at home. Her mom raises five kids—alone. She works full-time as a surgical tech at Yale-New Haven Children’s Hospital. She also is pursuing a nursing degree at Gateway Community College. Lately she’d been working extra shifts at the hospital. When she was at home, she had to focus on Tiana’s older sister, who’d been getting in trouble at high school.

“I didn’t get a lot of attention, Tiana recalled. “That made me forget about my homework. I’d be watching TV instead. Mom would arrive home around bedtime.

That changed after the conference over homework slips. Mom dropped two of her four classes at Gateway for the semester. She took some accumulated vacation time from work.

And she had flash cards ready—when Tiana woke up, when she came home, when she went to bed. Now, Tiana said, she was receiving “a little too much attention. I didn’t even get in the door yet. She’d meet me down the street: ‘Let’s do your homework!’”

And mom had a mantra: “You’ve got to get into a good college one day.”

Mom started showing up at school events, too. When she had to work, she sent Tiana’s grandmother, grandfather, aunt or cousin.

Meanwhile, King focused on Tiana in the classroom. She often divides her students into small work clusters, grouping together kids with similar challenges and strengths. She has the groups work independently while she visits each cluster and works more closely with individual students. She saw Tiana start to participate in those clusters.

Then, as she mastered her times tables and got to know her classmates better, she participated more in class. She got a 96 on a test; she beamed when King told her it was the highest score in the class. (Another surprise discovery for King Wednesday: Tiana has kept the test to this day.)

In King’s class, kids get second chances. If they do poorly on a test or an assignment, they can do it over. However, they must show how they arrived at the right answers this time, and what mistakes they’d made last time. Tiana took advantage of that option.

Tiana also started attending an after-school program at Davis. Some days she played saxophone with the band; she said it helped focus on homework when she got home (partly because she could tell her mom she’d already practiced her horn). Other days the program drilled Tiana and classmates on the CMTs.

DSCN0893.JPGKing (pictured) said she could tell just by observing Tiana that she was doing well on the CMTs last March.

The actual scores arrived this fall. King (no longer Tiana’s teacher) made sure mom Jaynes saw them.

Tiana remembered hearing the news from her mom. Mom looked stern.

“She said, ‘You got below basic [the lowest ranking] on everything.’ I went in my room and cried. She said, ‘I’m just kidding. You got goal in everything but science!’”

Mom and daughter headed to Friendly’s for celebratory fudge brownie ice cream. Tiana remembered her confection arriving with “congratulations” written on it.

DSCN0867.JPGDavis officials keep reams of data on each student’s test-score and classroom grade progress throughout the year. The notebooks include a second ranking of standardized-test performance—not scores on the test, but a “vertical scale” quantifying overall progress from year to year, grouped by five “levels of understanding” assessment. Tiana started the year low in “Stage 1” of the scale, at a score of 300, signifying a “very limited ability to read and respond to informational and literary texts.” By year’s end she had leaped up to the higher reaches of Stage II, with a 482 score, the biggest jump in the grade. Her academic progress has continued this year, along with her positive attitude, reported Principal Lola Nathan (at left in photo reviewing the data with a top administrator, Mary Derwin).

Tiana’s mom said she appreciates the way Davis administrators and teachers work with kids who are struggling, the way Tiana was last year.

“They’re more like a family,” she said. “When someone gets in trouble, instead of suspending them, taking them out of school,” they find ways to engage the student and set high expectations.

One result: no more achievement gap.

Previous stories about Davis Street 21st Century Magnet School:

She Made Time To Get Off Work
Reading Target Set: 90% By February
Principal Finds A Place For “Magic”
Comer Is Back
Davis Kids Examine Apathy & Genocide
Principal Keeps School On The Move
Pot Melts
So Long, Old Davis
Music History Steps Offstage
Music Video Of The Week

Some previous stories about New Haven’s school reform drive:

She Made Time To Get Off Work
New Leaders Sought For City High Schools
Report Card Night Revamped
Parents Challenged To Join Reform Drive
Where Do Bad Teachers Go?
Reform Committees Set
Mayo Extends Olive Branch
School Board Makes Mom Cry
Next Term Will Determine Mayor’s Legacy
Reading Target Set: 90% By February
Teacher Pact Applauded; Will $$ Follow?
Mayor “Not Scared” By $100M
Useful Applause: Duncan, AFT Praise City
Reformer Moves Inside
After Teacher Vote, Mayo Seeks “Grand Slam”
Will Teacher Contract Bring D.C. Reward?
What About The Parents?
Teachers, City Reach Tentative Pact
Philanthropists Join School Reform Drive
Wanted: Great Teachers
“Class of 2026” Gets Started
Principal Keeps School On The Move
With National Push, Reform Talks Advance
Nice New School! Now Do Your Homework
Mayo Unveils Discipline Plan
Mayor Launches “School Change” Campaign
Reform Drive Snags “New Teacher” Team
Can He Work School Reform Magic?
Some Parental Non-Involvement Is OK, Too
Mayor: Close Failing Schools
Union Chief: Don’t Blame The Teachers
3-Tiered School Reform Comes Into Focus
At NAACP, Mayo Outlines School Reform
Post Created To Bring In School Reform
Board of Ed Assembles Legal Team

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posted by: Hood Rebel on December 28, 2009  1:59pm

If you know Nathan, you know she never ever gives up on kids; she engages families from all walks life like no one else; and she absolutely does not tolerate any adult EXCUSES for kids’ failure!  There is no wonder that Davis obliterated the Achievement Gap! Great example for New Haven, all of Connecticut and the nation!

posted by: Cap on December 28, 2009  2:31pm

What great news about a much-desired payoff for hard work and effort. Way to go Tiana!  Keep it up.

posted by: westville on December 28, 2009  3:17pm

Congratulations to Tiana and Ms. Jaynes, their extended family, and Ms. King.  Way to go!

posted by: streever on December 28, 2009  3:51pm

Awesome news! Too often people are content to just sit on their biases & assume that New Haven schools will never do well. This proves that they can when teachers, childrens, parents, and administrators engage.

posted by: anon on December 28, 2009  4:46pm

The problem in our system is intergenerational poverty, racism, inequalities, lack of opportunity, and basic urban economics; not the school district.

Read this:

Let’s hope the city and state can focus on much on addressing these problems—arguably much more important when it comes to the success of all our children—as they can on the schools themselves.

Closing a racial achievement gap sounds good, especially to middle-class parents, but is still so incredibly far from where we need to be as a just and equal society.

posted by: mary rosario on December 28, 2009  4:48pm

Great Job Lola!!!!!!!!YOUR school has shown that Parents,Teachers,Principals coming together and really looking at the whole child to get results will work.We have to get in touch with families and look at everything we can do to help them get their child on task and your school is a great model for us.Thank you and your staff for the great job you are doing!!!!!!!!!

posted by: Lisa on December 28, 2009  7:19pm

Congratulations, everyone! The future leaders of America. Others should look to you all as an example of what is possible.

posted by: Yes We Can on December 29, 2009  8:50am

Great work by the students, parents, teachers and staff of Davis Street School! 

Kudos to Paul for taking the quantum leap and actually entering a NHPS to witness the dynamic students and staff that work hard every day within those walls.

The sustained gains at Davis have been made with a full preK-8 school.  This is significant as it is far more compelling to see these successes than to hold up small Charter schools with self-selecting small student bodies with less special education, discipipline, language and parent invovlement challenges.

It would be more indicative of statistical reality if CONNCAN reported on schools based on size (similar to how the CIAC divides athletics).  The intentional co-mingling and comparisons of schools with hundreds of students vs. schools with tens of students is disengenuous at best.  While CONNCAN can still produce an overall list if it chose to (although it really has no legitimate statistical meaning) it could.

With that said, there is clearly a place at the table for a variety of solutions, including Charters.  However, as Lola Nathan and (in spite of Paul’s false by-line) other NHPS have proven, Public Schools which are properly funded can close the achievement gap.  Charters and their supporters should cease the false and statitically baseless comparisons.  Rather they should join with the NHPS openly to seek proper funding for all schools and students.  The current strategy to fight over the existing pot of money set aside for public schools is a losing battle which will leave both the Charters and Public Schools with less.  As CT currently underfunds both the more prudent strategy would be to join forces and demand appropriate funding such that all Public School students (whether Traditional Public or Charter, Magnet or not) will have their State Constitutional Right to Public Education met.

Now is the time to join together.


posted by: RichTherrn on December 29, 2009  10:14am

Congratulations to all the students and staff at Davis school.
We also need to keep in mind that other NHPS schools have also shown improvement, although it may not show up on the CONNCANN report. The report uses very specific methodology, only compares % at goal for fifth grade OR eighth grade for some schools (such as some charters), both for others (such as some NHPS schools), or sometimes uses 4th or 7th grade scores. It isn’t able to compare all schools in the state in certain areas due to numbers or grade configurations. In some cases they will use just reading/math scores, and in others compare reading/math/writing/science. While the report is useful, it is better to actually examine the full data to get an accurate picture.
I think the article points out that a whole school, whole child approach used by Davis is a model that can be emulated to aim at success with a steady, hard working approach, child by child. There are no quick easy answers, it takes hard work, and I think all NHPS educators realize that.
Richard Therrien
NHPS Science Supervisor

posted by: Hood Rebel on December 29, 2009  4:44pm

Therien, your posts makes one wonder if ConnCan’s report is even valid if it includes all of these cut and paste configurations you describe.  If you’re right about the variations in methods used, the ConnCan conclusions might be shaky at best!
Nonetheless, Davis’ outstanding student performance speaks for itself, even without the ConnCan report. Go Davis!

posted by: THREEFIFTHS on December 30, 2009  10:59am

Hood Rebel / RichTherrn

Therien, your posts makes one wonder if ConnCan’s report is even valid if it includes all of these cut and paste configurations you describe. If you’re right about the variations in methods used, the ConnCan conclusions might be shaky at best!
Nonetheless, Davis’ outstanding student performance speaks for itself, even without the ConnCan report. Go Davis!

That is way I call them ConCan.This is proof that the school system that we have now can work.