Bridging the Gap in Achievement


The Hardy Elementary School student couldn't keep his classwork together. When it was time to study, he couldn't find the papers he needed to review. To help the fifth-grader become more organized, Rebecca Smith, his mentor and a fifth-grade teacher at the Isle of Wight school, worked with him every week.

Another Hardy student was angry, lashing out at his teachers and often winding up in the principal's office.

His mentor, an administrative assistant at the school, spent time talking to the third-grader, encouraging him to work harder. She also gave him hugs.

The students blossomed under the extra attention. One of them went from failing classes to making the honor roll.

"You have to guide," said Martha Jackson, the third-grader's mentor. "You have to nurture and you have to support."

The theme is repeated in schools in the area, across Virginia and throughout the country. More educators are devoting their time to providing special attention to students like these two boys, both of whom are black, to help them succeed.

Fifty years ago today, the Supreme Court ruled America's schools must desegregate to provide black children the same quality of education as white children.

But despite efforts like the one at Hardy, black students continue to lag behind their white peers in school.

As the achievement gap has become more apparent, more efforts have sprung up to close it. They range from the No Child Left Behind Act that evaluates how minority children are taught nationwide, to community-based programs for handfuls of children.

"A child needs to feel that he is cared for and belongs," said Hardy Elementary Principal Richard Crawford. "Some children just need an extra shoulder to lean on."

Many of the programs are geared toward minority students, but white students like those in the Williamsburg-James City County school system's AVID program take advantage of them as well.

In Newport News, schools work with community groups and businesses to find ways to unlock the doors to a child's success.

York County school officials recently formed a minority student achievement task force that works to identify strategies aimed at helping minority students score better on tests and increasing the number of minority students in advanced classes.

A program geared toward ensuring that average students maximize their potential has been a part of the Williamsburg-James City County school system for more than 20 years.

In many school districts, students benefit from mentoring or tutoring programs. And in some districts, parents get help on how to better help their children succeed in school.


Students who fall somewhere between the at-risk and gifted-and-talented groups often are ignored. These students may be white, black, Asian or Hispanic, and all may have the potential to do better work. They simply don't know how to get there, said Darian Jones, minority achievement supervisor for Williamsburg-James City County schools.

AVID shows them a way. Advancement Via Individual Determination was started in 1980 and has spread to more than 1,500 schools nationwide. The ultimate goal of the program is to help prepare these students for college.

The W-JCC program, available to all races in middle and high school, was designed to give minority students a way to close the achievement gap. To qualify, students must have average-to-high test scores, a grade point average between 2.0 and 3.5 and show a desire to do well.

Some of the students may be the first in their families to attend college. Or they may come from low-income families. Or they could be from minority groups underrepresented at four-year colleges.

"We stretch them so that they can handle the rigor of honors courses," said Vanessa Whitaker, supervisor of school counseling and the AVID program for Newport News Public Schools.

Participating students receive extra tutoring and have an opportunity to visit college campuses. They also learn time-management skills, better note-taking and improved study habits.

It pays off.

In the past five years, nine out of 10 Newport News AVID high school seniors have been accepted at four-year colleges.

Jamestown High School sophomore Anna Paul said the program has helped her boost her performance.

"Without AVID, I probably wouldn't be where I am now," the 16-year-old said. "I probably wouldn't be an A or B student. I would be somewhere around a B and C average."


Research shows parental support plays a large role in academic success. Educators know from experience that low-income families often have less time and fewer resources to help out.

In Hampton, 16 of the city's elementary schools with high numbers of students from low-income families, now each have a staff member focusing solely on parents.

They plan workshops, urge parents to join the PTA, relay parents' concerns to teachers and help them understand academic courses and standardized exams.

Hampton school officials hope increasing parental participation eventually will improve student achievement at these schools, most of which are predominantly black and where only seven have met both state and federal benchmarks for test scores.

"We put a heavy burden on our parents now," said Helema Vandivier, who runs the parent center at Tyler Elementary School. "You need a support system to raise a child."

Vandivier's sunny room has coffee and tea for the parents and toys for children. Parents can stay as long as they like, but Vandivier allows few to leave without a book for them or an educational game for their children.

Another way to engage parents is enrolling them in a Parent University program, said Jennifer Parish, director of staff development and student achievement for York County schools. The program helps parents help their children take advantage of the various academic programs, especially when they get to high school, she said.

"We want to engage parents ... so they are making longer-term decisions for their children," Parish said.

York Schools Superintendent Steven Staples said it also is important for school systems to hire minority teachers.

Last year, York County had 12,448 students, of which more than 1,900 were black, 408 were Hispanic and 649 were Asian. Of the 859 teachers in the school system, about 240 were minorities. Minorities also make up 21 percent of the district's school administrative staff.

On the other hand, Hampton schools have a much different ratio - almost 15,000 of the district's nearly 23,000 students are minorities.

That forced school leaders to look at how learning styles vary across racial boundaries, according to Dan Mulligan, director of instructional accountability for the school system.

Many of the city's schools "never would have been fully accredited if we hadn't been looking at learning styles of minority students," Mulligan said, adding that what's different now is that schools are looking specifically for achievement gaps between different races of students. All schools are heading in this direction. Federal and state laws are dictating changes in education that draw a bottom line: Everyone leaves high school holding a diploma that was earned.


Community members also can play an important role in helping students do well inside and outside the classroom.

Teachers and other employees at Hidenwood Elementary School in Newport News have become surrogate parents to students by spending quality time with them on the weekends and during school hours.

The "Husky Heroes" go shopping with students, take them to the hair salon and Busch Gardens on their own time, said Principal Helen Wylie. More than half of the school's 70-member staff work with 55 children in all grades.

The program this year has played a role in reducing by 60 percent the number of students written up for discipline problems as compared to last year, she said, and that has led to fewer suspensions.

Female students at Woodside High School have become big sisters to fourth and fifth-grade students at South Morrison Elementary School. About 20 Woodside students meet monthly with 90 South Morrison girls to discuss issues such as making good grades and life choices, said Ann Robinson, the school's guidance counselor.

"It's been a motivator for some (students) if they were having trouble in school as far as behavior," Robinson said. "We've really had girls straighten up their behavior so they can come."


Sometimes, children are limited simply by low expectations.

"Some kids come with a defeatist attitude," said Levia Stovall, principal at Lee Elementary School in Hampton. "Some parents teach them that they can't do something."

While most parents take interest in their children's education, she said some are overwhelmed with work, family or other obligations.

Stovall, a former guidance counselor, regularly checks daily planners and report cards of a few students who once earned poor grades. One of her teachers visits a student at home to read to him. During special assemblies, staff members sit with students whose parents don't or can't attend.

This school year, all students at Heritage High School in Newport News had to take honors geography. The new rule is part of Principal Timothy Sweeney's efforts to get his students to broaden their academic horizons.

"I have pushed my whole freshman class," he said. "If you come to Heritage, my expectations as a principal are that you will take an honors class per year."

At Hardy Elementary in Isle of Wight, a mentor program helps students achieve on the theory that kids need adult role models and crave attention. Not getting that attention at home could spill over into bad behavior and low achievement at school.

About 30 staff members at the school mentor 43 students, meeting with them a few times a week and reporting their progress to assistant principal Keith Williams who helped to form the program.

Teachers and staff members hope the program will grow and help more kids succeed.

"I would hope that having a mentor at Hardy," Williams said, "is like having another family member at school." n

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