Achievement Gaps, Racial Equity and the Challenges of Family Engagement

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Communities can succeed in ensuring that all students achieve their full potential when parents and families are fully engaged as partners and allies.

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Earlier this month, I had the chance to spend two days in Madison, Wisconsin with Mayor Paul Soglin, his senior staff and a variety of key community partners who are working to close opportunity gaps and expand out-of-school time learning across the city.

An early afternoon meeting in Mayor Soglin’s office was half tutorial, half search for answers to vexing questions. Bar graphs flashed across a large, wall-mounted screen, the starting point for a probing discussion of how both white and African American households have fared in Madison and the surrounding county after the Great Recession, and the role that the city’s Neighborhood Resource Teams may have played in recent economic gains. A line graph sparked an energetic conversation about the role that the closure of a local community health center may have played in a sharp upturn in infant mortality among African Americans.

A common thread in the discussion was the attention to racial disparities. Madison has one of the largest achievement gaps in the nation between white and African American, Latino and Asian students, a crisis that weighs heavily on the conscience and self-image of this progressive community. Race to Equity, a local effort dedicated to closing these gaps, helps keep the issue and key data at the forefront of city deliberations.

 One key part of the city’s strategy to address its achievement gap, and the critical opportunity gaps that fuel its persistence, was on display the next day in a community conversation hosted by the City of Madison in partnership with NLC and the U.S. Department of Education. The Saturday event, sponsored by the Madison Out-of-School Time (MOST) initiative and held at a local Boys and Girls Club, drew a crowd of more than 100 participants, including Madison Metropolitan School District Superintendent Jennifer Cheatham, Dane County Human Services Director Lynn Green, representatives of community-based organizations and a diverse group of parents and other neighborhood residents.

I greatly appreciated the chance to speak to the group, underscoring the important role that Mayor Soglin has played in NLC’s Mayor’s Education Reform Task Force and the potential for mayoral leadership in expanding learning opportunities for all children. Eddie Martin, Special Assistant for the Center for Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships at the U.S. Department of Education, emphasized Secretary Arne Duncan’s commitment to supporting city-school collaborations that seek to improve public schools and close achievement gaps.

The central message of the day, however, was that Madison can succeed in its efforts to ensure that all students achieve their full potential only if all segments of the community – and most importantly parents and families – are fully engaged as partners and allies. The community conversation organized by Mayor Soglin represented a key first step in that direction.

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About the Author: Clifford M. Johnson is the Executive Director of NLC’s Institute for Youth, Education, and Families.