In Gainesville schools, like many across the region, state and country, some minority students consistently perform below their white counterparts on standardized tests.
School officials call it the “achievement gap.” The lowest of the low-achieving students are being left behind.
Georgia Milestones test scores
The Georgia Milestones Assessment System measures students in third through 12th grades in how well they have learned the skills outlined in state-adopted content standards.
Students in grades third through eighth take End-Of-Grade assessments in English/language arts and math, while students in grades fifth and eighth are also assessed in science and social studies.
High school students take End-Of-Course assessments in any of the eight courses designated by the State Board of Education in which they may be enrolled.
Source: Georgia Department of Education
Source: Gainesville City Schools
“It’s about equity,” said Gainesville Superintendent Jeremy Williams, by which he means the lack thereof.
Many forces are at play — family life, a teacher’s skill, funding and resources. But Williams, like a coach focused on the next game, is trying to control what he can control.“What are we not doing?” he asked.
One of the first directives Williams received from the school board when he took the superintendent job earlier this year was to improve testing and graduation rates among African-American and Hispanic students.
Williams said identifying the roots of the issue began with community and professional engagement.
A leadership summit in June kicked off the agenda, and a meeting with black ministers followed. Williams said he soon intends to hold a similar gathering with Latino pastors and community leaders.
Immediate action items include recruitment of talented minority educators, better development of teachers on staff and more efficient allocation of resources, Williams said.
But then outside forces come to bear on the situation with countless socioeconomic factors impacting student development.“As a community, we are going to have to raise the bar,” board member Willie Mitchell said.
The 2017 Georgia Milestones scores plot the distance in achievement rates between students.
Latinos who were not considered English language learners outperformed African-Americans in most study areas at all grade levels.
The language barrier has been especially trying to overcome for educators, and the results show.
African-American high school students have shown improved results in literature, geometry and biology assessments while holding steady in history and economics.
And scores have improved slightly among minorities of elementary age since 2015.
There can be some large fluctuations year to year and some inexplicable ones, too. But the trends have mostly held over the past three years: incremental improvement that still leaves students lagging behind.
Because Gainesville families can choose which elementary school their children attend, Williams said inequities in student achievement among demographic subgroups exist in all schools.
“There’s still a lot of work to do,” Williams said.
There are many positive highlights from this year’s results. As a system, the pass rate in both language arts and math increased two percentage points while the rate in social studies increased by four points. And students reading on grade level increased by three points.
Among individual schools, for example, Fair Street International increased its pass rate in every content area except fifth-grade math and fifth-grade language arts, which remained the same from last year.
Gainesville Middle School’s eighth-grade math scores exceeded the state pass rate by 11 percentage points.
Gainesville High School increased performance in ninth-grade literature and composition, American literature and composition, algebra, biology and economics.
It all goes back to more resources in homes and communities, said Angela Middleton, a former educator at three Hall County schools and a renowned basketball coach. For example, an absence of libraries, parks and kids’ clubs in minority neighborhoods can inhibit what Middleton calls a culture of learning.
“The environment is a huge (role),” she added.
The Boys and Girls Clubs of Lanier helps fill many gaps. It operates an 18,000-square-foot facility that features a newly renovated gym, game room, art room, technology center, basketball courts, walking trail, playground, fitness area, and baseball, softball and multipurpose fields.
The clubs also run after-school programs at five elementary school locations and the Melrose Apartments.
But other needs, such as transportation, internet access and health care are also factors.
Census figures show that nearly 16,000 of 63,989 households in Hall are without internet, and 8,395 households have no computer at all.
And minorities in Gainesville are significantly less likely to have health insurance, private transportation or own a home.
“Things we take for granted are not equal,” said Middleton, who now teaches GED courses at the Goodwill Career Center in Oakwood.
The U.S. Census Bureau reports the poverty rate within Gainesville is 28.3 percent, according to American Community Survey five-year estimates. Among those are 12,000 enrolled in school.
The largest age segments are between 6 to 11 years old and 25 to 34 years old.
These numbers make civic engagement all the more critical, Mitchell said. He wants to engage the whole family to ensure parents have the resources they need to stay connected with their child’s education, to improve their own job skills and create more vibrant communities.
He recently met with local leaders and retired educators at the Educational Foundation and Museum of Beulah Rucker in Gainesville, a place memorializing the role its African-American namesake played in local education, religious, economic, social and civic life.
“This is an opportunity,” he added. “It’s a collective effort. It’s an American problem.”