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Three Portland schools closing achievement gap

National index measures efforts to improve equity

TRIBUNE PHOTO: JOSHUA KULLA - David Douglas School Districts Menlo Park Elementary School came out in a national report as the Portland school doing the most to close the achievement gap between low-income and upper-income students. The David Douglas School District has two of the three Portland-area schools that show up on a new national index of equitable outcomes in education for low-income students.

Menlo Park Elementary School and Alice Ott Middle School both showed small or nonexistent achievement gaps, according to the new Education Equality Index, released last Tuesday, March 22, through a partnership of national nonprofits.

Franklin High School was the only one in Portland Public Schools that showed both high achievement and a high number of students on free-and-reduced lunch, according to the report.

Even though only one school in the district made the Education Cities list of Top Schools, PPS spokeswoman Christine Miles points to the district’s 20.4 percentage point improvement in four-year graduation rates since 2009 as evidence of the success of its efforts.

“We are still reviewing the data from this report, however, PPS’ commitment to closing the achievement gap has been well underway for many years,” Miles says in an email. “The concept of educational equity goes beyond formal equality — where all students are treated the same — we (are) working toward fostering a barrier-free environment where all students, regardless of their race, have the opportunity to benefit equally.”

PPS strategy questioned

A major push at Portland Public Schools this year to improve equity in educational opportunities has been to redraw school boundaries. The idea is to balance enrollment and therefore equalize school budgets, allowing more equitable offerings and opportunities.

But one principal says she isn’t sure that should be a major priority.

“I don’t know if that’ll be effective,” says Kellie Burkhardt, principal of David Douglas’ Menlo Park Elementary. “I think it takes a lot more than redrawing boundaries.”

Menlo Park serves the highest percentage of low-income students among the three schools identified as Top Schools in Portland by the report. COURTESY PHOTO - Principal Kellie Burkhardt

Burkhardt attributes the success of her school to the Response to Intervention program, which according to documents is also in use in Portland Public Schools. RTI is a universal screening system that analyzes data to find the bottom 20 percent of student achievers. Those kids then get more help, such as 30 extra minutes per day of reading coaching, Burkhardt says. In addition, the school staff meet quarterly to evaluate the entire classroom and grade level.

“Not all children need the same thing to succeed, but it’s about providing what those students do need to succeed,” she says. “That’s what equity means: providing what the child needs.”

Burkhardt also points to David Douglas’ lauded Language for All program, which pushes explicit English language instruction to all students — not just those who speak one of the 20 other languages spoken in Menlo Park homes.

“(English-speaking) children of poverty often have trouble with academic language,” she says.

Portland ranked 47th

Portland ranked 47th out of the top 100 American cities the study looked at. This means a low-income child in Portland is much less likely to succeed than in San Francisco, which ranked sixth in the report.

The report’s authors say the data could be used to compare educational opportunities across cities and schools but backtracked on original statements that the scores could be used to compare states.

"We are confident that school-level and city-level EEI scores are highlighting success stories across the nation, but we have concluded that the state-level EEI scores are not the best way to compare states," reads a March 29 statement. "Because states’ absolute EEI scores are highly correlated to the percentage of students in the state who qualify for free and reduced-price lunch, we have removed the rankings of states based on the EEI score and pace of change pending further review."

The achievement gap is narrowing in Portland., according to the report. At 4 percent, the city’s overall achievement gap narrowed faster than two-thirds of the nation’s largest cities between 2011 and 2014.

“We celebrate the three gap-closing Portland schools, and encourage city and education leaders to redouble their efforts to provide more students from low-income families with access to equitable schools,” Ethan Gray, founder and CEO of Education Cities, said in a statement.

The index was developed by Education Cities, the Michael & Susan Dell Foundation and GreatSchools nonprofit, which has funding in part from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

UPDATE 3/29/16: This story has been changed from its original version to reflect a March 29 statement by Education Cities and GreatSchools that the state-level rankings are not valid for comparison.

Shasta Kearns Moore
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