I respect and admire the creativity and tenacity of educators as our profession constantly strives to improve schools through the latest strategies and techniques. But educators alone cannot assure student success.
Recently, Discovery and Jason Lee middle schools were designated as Tier II schools, “persistently lowest-achieving secondary schools that are eligible for, but do not receive Title 1, Part A funds” under federal education guidelines. This designation made it possible for Vancouver Public Schools to submit a competitive school improvement grant under the rules outlined in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.
Of the 47 schools on the state’s “persistently lowest achieving” list, 75 percent are middle schools with twice as many students in poverty and English-language learners than the state average. The direct relationship between poverty and student achievement is a long-proven fact. Poverty also influences school readiness. According to a recent study conducted by the U.S. Department of Education, children from poverty-impacted homes come to school with an English vocabulary of about 3,000 words. Children from more affluent families enter with a vocabulary of about 20,000 words. Achievement gaps begin from birth to age 5.
Decades of experience and research have shown that unmet basic needs, family mobility, inadequate medical and dental care, mental health issues, drug and alcohol abuse, crime and violence, and gang involvement adversely impact student achievement. According to the Search Institute, failure in school also can be caused by a deficit in the 40 developmental assets that help kids thrive and become healthy, productive adults.
Public policymakers legislate what they can control, but simple solutions won’t solve complex problems. Education is an arduous and dynamic process that requires the work of willing students, dedicated staff, and supportive families. A 21st century school system also must address the needs of an increasingly diverse and poverty-affected student population. Attacking the achievement gaps by focusing on one piece of the puzzle is an incomplete strategy.
It takes a village
During a school year, students in America typically spend 14 percent of their time in school. They are asleep for 33 percent of the year and awake at home and in our community for 53 percent of the year. We need the entire village — schools, families, and community interacting as partners — to strengthen opportunities for students to learn and grow.
Reaching our goal — all students ready for college, careers and life — requires a more comprehensive approach to the education and well-being of the whole person and a broader commitment from all partners and stakeholders. Reciprocal and shared accountability is imperative. The federal government, states, and communities must leverage resources in new ways that will improve not only the public school system but also those environmental conditions that too often serve as barriers to learning.
The Vancouver district’s school improvement grant proposal, which would have provided nearly $9 million over three years to support Discovery and Jason Lee, was unsuccessful. Only nine of the 21 applicants in Washington state will receive a portion of the $17 million to be distributed this year, significantly less than the $49 million requested by the districts. This was disappointing news.
Our children cannot wait for the next round of federal grant money. We must be strategic with existing district and community resources by concentrating on our highest-need middle schools and the elementary schools that feed into them. These “opportunity zones” should receive additional support where practical and feasible. In a time of severely limited budgets, the district and its partners must divest and reinvest to assure student success.
Our plan for “opportunity zones” focuses on three common sense, research-based strategies: 1) increasing parent and community involvement; 2) ensuring high-quality instruction in every classroom, and; 3) extending the school day and year for some students based on need.
If we all work together, our community, partners, parents, faculty, staff and district leadership team can ensure that students in all Vancouver schools cross the finish line.
Steven T. Webb is the superintendent of Vancouver Public Schools.