The first meeting for the new partnership between the school district and Anne Arundel County will review why there is an achievement gap between white students and minority students — by first understanding the problem.

“The purpose of (Monday)’s meeting is to define the problem and hear from people on how they see the problem,” County Executive Steuart Pittman said.

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Superintendent George Arlotto said that the achievement gap has to be addressed through a collaborative effort.

“If we are going to do more than just chip away at the gaps that exist, we must have the partnership of our county government, our local and state elected officials, and our parents and communities,” Arlotto said in a statement. “Mr. Pittman’s willingness to invest time and resources in this conversation is a critical step and I am hopeful that Monday night’s conversation ignites in others a passion to do what they can to impact this issue.”

The Joint Initiative to Eliminate the Achievement Gap is set to have its first meeting at 6:30 p.m. Monday at Arundel High School. Here are some of the things to keep in mind as community members, county officials and school system leaders come together to see what can be done.

What is the achievement gap?

The term, achievement gap, reveals consistent disparities in academic performance between different groups of students by factors such as race or income. The cause for a difference in the classroom comes from a variety of factors like poverty, income inequality and nutrition. Students of color also can experience racism, prejudice and other institutionalized problems that can then cause a decline in educational achievement. These factors are not solely within the schools and Pittman considered the gap to be parallel to understanding health problems.

“Doctors can’t solve health problems without addressing community issues. Educators can’t close the achievement gap without change in the communities. It’s essential to not look at this just as a school district problem,” he said.

Graduation Rate Widens

The achievement gap has widened between black and white students to its highest level since 2014 though the overall 89.2% is one of the highest of Maryland’s school districts. The achievement gap had shown signs of shrinking previously. Between 2015 to 2017, white students out-graduated black students by three to four percentage points. This was an improvement from 2014 in which 82% of black students graduated high school in comparison to 90% of white students. But by 2018 the gap is 5.7 percentage points — with 86.3% of black students graduating within four years compared to 92% of white students.

Complaints against the school district

Before the initiative was created, black community leaders asked Pittman what he planned to do about the achievement gap. Historically, there have been concerns expressed by community members when it comes to the educational system in the county.

The local NAACP chapter filed multiple complaints against county public schools. In 2004, a complaint was filed with the Office for Civil Rights that resulted in an outlined plan to close the achievement gap between black students and white students in the county. Seven years later, another complaint by the local chapter was filed alleging black students and teachers were subject to disparate treatment and that black students were disproportionately suspended or expelled. The complaint referenced the former plan did not change the number or the educational opportunities for black students.

A community effort

The initiative is not just a partnership between the school district and the county, but an effort to involve the community, said Pittman.

“It is going to focus public attention on community leaders and government officials on the problem,” he explained. “We want to make sure the community is engaged throughout and that the county and schools have equal influence in what happens.”

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The partnership is expected to be modeled similarly to the mental health task force. That task force is another collaboration between the school district and the county government after numbers showed an increased rate of anxiety and depression among young people. Similar to the mental health task force, those involved with the achievement gap initiative will review best practices across the country, look through the social determinants that contribute to the issue and come up with recommendations, said Pittman.

Influence of Kirwan Commission

An internal review of the education system is not just happening at the county level. The overall state is under review by the Kirwan Commission to change the state’s approach to education. The commission recently recommended a plan that would provide free preschool, more training for teachers, increased teacher salary, expanded resources for poor and special needs students and more. Critics of those recommendations worry it will be too expensive for Maryland taxpayers.

Pittman referenced the commission as an example of hope for people in Anne Arundel who want to see change happen on a more local level.

“The fact that our General Assembly is serious about trying to create the best education system in the world should give people hope,” he said.

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