My View: Courageous Conversations lay groundwork for better schools

by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT - Chuk Barber teaches African-Brazilian drumming and dance to middle-schoolers at Faubion K-8 School. Boys and girls of all races are enrolled in the class. That's not the case at Barber's other school, Harvey Scott K-8. Make no mistake, at Portland Public Schools, our goal is to increase student learning for every student — whether they are white, black, Latino, native, Asian or multiracial.

As a school district, we want every student to feel welcomed and engaged in our classrooms and programs, and we do not permit students to be excluded from any educational opportunity because of race or gender.

Yet as educators, we must own the fact that we have not served our students of color as well as we have served white students. For example, Portland’s students of color graduate at a rate that is as much as 23 percentage points lower than their white peers. We see similar gaps in student outcomes in other measures, from early reading scores to SAT results, both here in Portland and nationwide.

These racialized gaps in student achievement are not inevitable, but they result in lifelong gaps in opportunity and success.

We can change these results. That means increasing achievement for all students, while we take steps to accelerate gains for students of color at the same time.

How does a focus on racial equity support that goal? It asks all school district employees to reflect on how their attitudes and beliefs affect students. Specifically, it challenges us to examine whether our words and actions are helping students of color to succeed as well as white students, or whether we are creating inequitable learning environments that discourage students of color, lower expectations and even push them out of school.

In the classroom, it encourages teachers to tailor lesson plans, curriculum materials and discussions to embrace the diverse cultural experiences of our students, so all students are fully engaged in learning. Across our school district, it demands that our staff foster school climates that welcome every family and that we work more collaboratively with community partners, so students are learning both inside and outside of school.

For school district leaders, it challenges us to apply a lens of equity to our policy, budget and contracting decisions and deliver all students access to rigorous and relevant programs in their neighborhood school regardless of race, class or zip code.

Is it making a difference? Yes. Last year, our graduation rate rose 7 percentage points and the achievement gap narrowed for nearly every racial and ethnic group. Hispanic students produced a double-digit gain in graduation rates.

The gap has also narrowed the past three years at other educational milestones, such as third-grade reading.

These gains are not enough because our results are still not where we want them to be. We need to accelerate our progress. Maintaining our focus on equity is necessary to further improve student outcomes and narrow the achievement gap.

Closing the achievement gap benefits all of us. Here’s why: At Harvey Scott K-8 and Faubion K-8, more than three-quarters of the learners are students of color. That’s not unusual in many Portland schools: today students of color comprise 47 percent of Portland’s enrollment. In a city in which 80 percent of adults are white, Portland’s students reflect the diverse, multilingual neighborhoods, workforce and leadership of our city’s future.

Portland’s students need to be prepared to contribute, get along and compete in our increasingly diverse community and global economy. Research shows that reducing Portland’s drop-out rate would add hundreds of jobs and millions in lost earnings back into Portland’s economy.

If our schools (like Scott and Faubion) are successful in educating our diverse student population well, Portland will have the capable workforce it needs to attract new businesses today and in the future.

We know that talking about race and equity is complex and often uncomfortable. In Portland, we are working to overcome achievement disparities and racial inequities that challenge every large school district in the nation.

There are not always clear answers. Yet, by engaging in a conversation about racial equity we gain a chance to deepen our understanding of our students and find ways we can all come together to support them.

Time and again, Portland has united on behalf of its schools. By closing the opportunity gap in our classrooms, Portland schools can help our city unite to achieve a strong, vibrant and thriving community in the future.

This was submitted by Portland School Board Directors Martin Gonzalez and Greg Belisle (co-chairs), Ruth Adkins, Pam Knowles, Matt Morton, Bobbie Regan, Trudy Sargent and Alexia Garcia (student representative), and Superintendent Carole Smith.

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