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News / Northwest

Why Seattle schools are hinging student success on Black male achievement

By Monica Velez, The Seattle Times
Published: March 18, 2023, 6:00am

SEATTLE — During a math lesson on dividing decimals at Hawthorne Elementary School, 11-year-old Imran Ali said the material didn’t click for him until his fifth grade teacher taught it using felt blocks. It was easier, he said, to count out real-life objects instead of grappling with abstract numbers in his head.

For 10-year-old Aliayah Smith, the lesson made sense when she worked out a word problem on paper. And Ryan Jackson, 10, said he understood the work better after his teacher showed the class a video explainer.

These are all the ways Rachel Pitts teaches math lessons in her fifth grade class, in a school where the majority are students of color. “It’s fun the way Ms. Pitts teaches it,” Ryan said. “It’s hard at times but overall good.”

The effort to boost curriculum and teaching strategies is part of a yearslong initiative to improve academic outcomes and experiences for African American male students in Seattle Public Schools, and in doing so, raise achievement for all students.

Why the focus on Black male students? Educators believe the approach will have far-reaching benefits for every student. If the district can get the education system to work for Black male students, said Superintendent Brent Jones, it will work for everyone.

This year, as part of that effort, the district is making lessons in math and reading more equitable as part of a new curriculum Seattle Public Schools started teaching at the elementary level this school year.

It’s common in classrooms with more students of color to see lower-grade-level repetitive work and less emphasis on conceptual understanding, said Elissa Farmer, math program manager.

“There is a common belief in our society that some people are math people and that other people are not,” Farmer said. “Societal beliefs impact what students can do and what educators think what students can do.”

Improving math and reading scores is a challenge on top of the already difficult job of catching students up after pandemic learning losses, Jones told the School Board recently. “Our system has historically not provided math instruction that is research-based and meets the needs of every child in the classroom, which is true of many districts across the country.”

Where SPS wants student scores to be

Seattle gained national attention in 2016 for having the fifth-biggest gap in academic achievement between Black and white students among the country’s 200 largest school districts.

As a result, in 2019, SPS launched the Office of African American Male Achievement, an initiative focused on integrating Black male student perspectives in every part of the district’s departments and schools.

The district also set goals through 2026 based on the seventh grade math scores and third grade reading scores from the Smarter Balanced Assessment, or SBA, a standardized test given statewide in the spring. To improve these scores, Jones said, SPS needed to focus on improving education in younger grades.

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The new math curriculum, enVision, is designed to give students a deeper understanding of math, so they understand why math problems are solved rather than just how they are solved. The goal is for students to reach what Pitts calls “procedural fluency.” That happens when students can use the math learned in the classroom in real-life situations.

There’s a poster on the left side of the whiteboard at the front of Pitts’ class. It’s titled, “Questions to deepen our mathematical thinking.”

It asks: How could we solve this another way? Have we seen a problem like this before? How did you organize your thinking? Is your answer reasonable? Where else would this strategy be useful?

Pitts said every math lesson starts with a word problem that connects to what students recently learned. New material is sprinkled in. During this part, Pitts brings several students to the front of the class to share how they got to their answers.

“It allows them to do productive struggles,” Pitts said. “Their wheels are turning and they’re thinking about math.”

Then students watch a video that goes along with a workbook. Students solve problems with their desk neighbors, or do the problems on their own. Pitts walks around the room assisting students who have questions.

Where Seattle student scores are now

By 2026, Seattle wants 70% of seventh grade Black male students to score “proficient” or higher on the math SBA test. It’s a way to measure whether the district as a whole is improving the way it teaches math to all students.

But on the spring 2022 test, 45% of those students scored “well below” proficiency. Twenty-three percent scored “below” and about 24% of students either met or exceeded math proficiency.

Black youth reading scores are also down. On the third grade English language arts standardized test in spring 2022, nearly 32% of Black males scored proficient or better, about 16 percentage points below the district’s goal. But compared to 2019, when about 30% of Black male students scored proficient, the results were stable.

For English language arts, the district’s target is for 70% of Black male third graders to score proficient by spring 2024.

The pandemic has hindered this work. Even though the last school year was in person, there were many disruptions, said Luke Justice, project manager of continuous improvement in early literacy. “COVID outbreaks at schools resulted in mass teacher absences, substitute rates were abysmal in many schools, you had principals covering classes. In some sense we’re feeling like this [school] year is getting close to a return to normalcy.”

To reach math goals, there’s a possibility the district will have to reconsider its timeline.

“In math, it is even a little bit more concerning in terms of where we are with the data — but to note we just started this summer with formally launching our very specific efforts,” said Caleb Perkins, executive director of college and career readiness.

SPS is also monitoring math and English standardized test results for students of color, multilingual learners and students with individualized education programs. IEPs are legal documents for students who need specialized learning resources. Students are regularly assessed, and IEPs detail each student’s needs.

There is a lot of weight put on SBA scores to monitor progress, but the district’s math and reading analysis also put an emphasis on improving students’ perception of math and reading, plus increasing access to advanced courses.

“The bottom line is we need to dramatically improve our system to promote literacy and math outcomes,” Perkins said.

The student experience

When they walk into the Hawthorne Elementary School office, students see an image of Vice President Kamala Harris, the first woman, the first African American and the first Asian American to hold that office.

In the illustration, Harris’ shadow is of a young girl, Ruby Bridges — the first Black student to desegregate an all-white Louisiana school. Bridges later became a civil rights activist.

And the fifth graders in Pitts’ class also see photos and inspirational quotes from other Black trailblazers — Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King Jr., Bessie Coleman, Rosa Parks and Malcolm X.

It’s a way for students to see people who have achieved so much and also look like them. It also aligns with Seattle Schools’ mission to be an anti-racist institution.

Evaluating student experience and well-being is another major part of Seattle Schools’ initiative to improve outcomes from what officials call students furthest from educational justice — students of color, multilingual learners, and students with individualized education programs — with an emphasis on Black male students.

This is the first time SPS is evaluating progress based on student experiences. About a year ago, the district released a 29-page report, “Our Voice Our Vision: Strategies for Honoring and Supporting Black Excellence In Seattle Public Schools,” that recommended how to improve academic outcomes for Black youth. From August 2020 to April 2021, Office of African American Male Achievement leaders and students led 28 focus groups with Black teens and their families.

District officials said they have continued to use the information from these focus groups to develop five strategies to improve math outcomes. A climate survey has also been given out to students as a way to track the student experience.

But so far the climate survey has more to do with how well students think they will do in classes. And the results don’t align with the low-performing SBA scores. Based on survey results, about 82% of African American males in grades sixth through eighth either “strongly agree,” “agree” or “kind of agree” they will do well in any math classes they take.

Surveys of students on reading show that more than half of Black male students either enjoy reading, are confident in their reading skills, or both.

Moving forward with 5 strategies

Seattle’s five strategies to improve both math and reading scores are: Excellent teaching and joyful learning, strong relationships and connected families, equitable measures and student supports, opportunity pathways, and expanded learning and enrichment.

“These strategies are grounded in the research and engagement with students and families,” said Jones, the superintendent. “We’ve thought through how each of these strategies and initiatives will lead to improved student outcomes.”

How the district approaches each strategy in math and reading differs. SPS is starting its efforts in specific schools because it would be too difficult to launch new plans at all 106 schools.

SPS is using the strategies to improve math scores and instruction at six middle schools: Denny International, Aki Kurose, Mercer International, Washington, Meany and South Shore (K-8).

To improve reading scores the district is targeting 13 elementary schools: Bailey Gatzert, Broadview Thomson (K-8), Emerson, John Muir, Leschi, Martin Luther King Jr., Olympic Hills, Rainier View, Rising Star, South Shore (K-8), Thurgood Marshall, West Seattle and Wing Luke.

The emphasis on improving math scores among seventh grade Black males is part of an effort to provide more STEM — science, technology, engineering and math — opportunities to these students.

The first strategy is focused on equitable teaching practices. Monthly professional development and coaching for teachers is available at the six middle schools. Math teachers are being taught equitable practices in the classroom and identifying the “mathematical brilliance of African American males” through ICUCARE Equity Framework, a strategy developed by Pamela Seda and Kyndall Brown to make math classrooms more equitable.

The new math curriculum, enVision, aligns with ICUCARE.

“It’s designed to really think about how our math classrooms have not been supportive of, in particular, African American students and how to remedy that with very specific practices,” said Perkins, executive director of college and career readiness.

In 2017, SPS adopted a K-5 English language arts curriculum that puts systematic phonics at the heart of early literacy instruction, said Justice, project manager of continuous improvement in early literacy.

Some teachers have started to film themselves teaching phonics. Teachers watch lessons with a coach to unpack what worked and what didn’t work, Justice said. Then groups of teachers meet up and talk about what instruction techniques work best.

This school year a new “culturally and historically responsive education” initiative was launched through the K-5 curriculum. Educators are learning to curate culturally responsive texts and questions, writing prompts and activities that broaden students’ awareness of bias, prejudice, power, privilege and oppression.

The district has also replaced 30 books for elementary students with ones that better reflect the diversity of the school and community.

The next strategy is focused on building relationships with families. Over the summer, teachers conducted home visits for incoming Black sixth grade males at the six middle schools. Supports for families are being developed through the Office of African American Male Achievement.

There’s also been one-on-one outreach to Black male students in the 13 elementary schools.

The district is also creating and updating a tool for high school educators that will show how Black male students and students of color are progressing in course credits and planning for high school and after graduation.

Being proficient in math by seventh grade will give students more access to advanced coursework that could lead to college credits, Perkins said. And reading at proficient levels by third grade also plays a huge role.

“The idea of being strong readers in elementary does also translate to being stronger mathematicians in high school because of all the ways you’re processing language,” Perkins said.

Middle schools are beginning to collaborate with feeder elementary schools so support starts earlier. The goal: Enroll students in Algebra 1 in eighth grade and advanced math in high school.

The last strategy is expanding learning for African American males outside of the regular school day. The district is working on developing summer programs for incoming sixth graders at the targeted six schools.

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