News Column

Closing 'Achievement Gap' Still a Challenge, County Schools Chief Says

March 21, 2013

Cynthia Lambert

First, some good news: San Luis Obispo County students living in poverty or still learning English continue to make academic strides.

But their peers are improving as well, meaning a gap persists between the average student and those who are economically disadvantaged or whose native language is not English.

Closing the so-called achievement gap remains a challenge for the county's 10 public school districts, county schools Superintendent Julian Crocker said Wednesday at an annual education forecast hosted by the San Luis Obispo County Office of Education.

Districts are also trying to get more technology in classrooms and provide training for teachers with a focus on educating students to think critically, communicate effectively and work comfortably in groups.

"Many classrooms are stuck in the analog age," said San Luis Coastal Unified Superintendent Eric Prater. "We're preparing adults to prepare kids for the 21st century."

Cuesta College was included in this year's report, which serves as a snapshot of the county's 34,654 students in grades K-12, and 10,343 Cuesta students.

Cuesta's inclusion highlights the link between the school districts and the community college. Last fall, 732 students from seven high schools in the county enrolled at Cuesta.

The schools and the community college have weathered drastic budget cuts over the past five years, which resulted in layoffs, larger class sizes, and cuts to programs and services.

But there are some bright spots: Proposition 30, a temporary tax measure passed by voters last November, spared schools from having to make a lot more cuts this year.

Also, after 10 years of declining enrollment, K-12 districts are seeing a slight increase in enrollment because of an uptick in births and a decrease in the cost of housing, Crocker said.

Still, California ranks 48th nationwide in per-pupil funding, spending about $8,482 per student -- about 28 percent below the national average of $11,824. If California were spending at the national average, San Luis Obispo County would receive about $100,000 more per classroom each year, Crocker said.

The numbers prompted Cuesta President Gil Stork to suggest revisiting Proposition 13, the measure that rolled back property taxes and capped yearly increases until a property is sold.

"You cannot have low-cost access to public education and a Proposition 13," he said. "If you visit other states and see their property tax structure -- it's no wonder they have money to support public education."

Nearly a third in poverty

Out of 34,654 students in public schools in the county, about 10,000 -- about 28 percent -- are considered to be living in poverty. (The measure of poverty in this case is whether the students qualify for a free and reduced lunch program; for example, a family of four earning $40,000 or less a year would qualify.)

On annual tests, students in poverty and English-language learners routinely score about 15 to 40 percentage points lower than their peers.

Local educators are employing numerous strategies to help those groups reach the same academic targets as their classmates, including ongoing training for teachers, early intervention for students starting in kindergarten, and careful monitoring of students' progress.

Crocker is an advocate for universal preschool -- making sure all 3- and 4-year-old children have access to quality, free preschool so they are better prepared when they start kindergarten.

About 50 percent of children in the county currently have access; some do not attend preschool for financial reasons or are placed in a nonstructured preschool program.

When asked how his district is closing the achievement gap, Prater called the term a misnomer.

"What we need to do is create a sense of urgency to raise the floor and the ceiling," he said. "We need to look at every child and make sure they're making progress."



Source: (c)2013 The Tribune (San Luis Obispo, Calif.). Distributed by MCT Information Services.