Darsey Roque Morales, senior and president of the Latino Student Union, knows what it’s like to have to work to support his family. During his junior year, he took up a job after school to bring in additional income, and his GPA suffered as a result.
“Our whole community is affected because emotionally, we have to deal with what’s going on in our family, which is usually financial,” Roque Morales said. “And then we have to step in ourselves and get our own jobs, and that affects our academic achievement.”
Many students on campus have similar situations to Roque Morales, in which life circumstances can impede or influence their ability to succeed academically. SBAC scores indicate that socioeconomic status is one of the factors that has hindered students’ success. Just last school year, only 39 percent of socioeconomically disadvantaged students, defined as those that qualify for free and reduced lunch, met or exceeded the standards for math and 45 percent for English. In contrast, non-socioeconomically disadvantaged students performed 43 percent higher. This measurable difference in performance is often referred to as the achievement gap.
On a plaque, hanging in the district office, administration’s six year goals show the achievement gap as something they promise to combat. Yet after nearly thirty years of the district giving the issue prevalence, the difference in student performance related to income level has persisted.
According to Margarito Navarro, superintendent of educational services, this inequality is deeply rooted in the lack of opportunities given to students with fewer socioeconomic privileges, a disparity that often manifests itself very early in students’ lives. She and others prefer to call this the “opportunity gap.”
“The privileged student has many advantages that the underprivileged student doesn’t,” Superintendent Jeff Harding said. “They have parental care; they get a language-rich environment and preschool; they get books on the shelf, and oftentimes they have one parent who stays home.”
Troy Flint, California school board association communications director, has found that elementary and middle school years serve as the most formative years of education and as a result, can have a large impact on student achievement.
“Those are the highest learning years for intellectual development for a child,” Flint said. “If you don’t nurture the full potential of a child in those early years, it’s very difficult to make it up.”
Sophomore Brooke Kerstein said she experienced the difference in resources available to students from lower-income families when she transferred from an elementary school in a lower-income neighborhood to one in a more affluent area. Kerstein said she noticed that curriculum in her new school was at a much faster pace than at her previous school.
“It’s not to say that the curriculum was at all catering towards students who were at all less intelligent,” Kerstein said. “It was because of the fact that we just weren’t learning as much. That extremely impaired my own learning abilities later on, especially in math and English.”
Kerstein spent much of fifth and sixth grade in tutoring programs catching up to her classmates and said her parents had to spend a significant amount of money on extra academic support. She added that she would likely be struggling academically now if she did not have access to tutoring then.
Roque Morales affirmed that attending less affluent elementary and middle schools granted him less access to technology and advanced curriculum. When he arrived at high school, he felt a difference in his level of technological or academic skill compared to students from more affluent schools.
Although economic status significantly contributes to the achievement gap, other factors such as race and immigration status correlate with student achievement. For example, middle and higher income African American and Latinx students underperform overall compared to their white and Asian peers of equal financial status, according to Flint.
“The idea has been that poor student performance is heavily rooted in poverty and it absolutely is, but there are other factors at play here, including the expectations that students have of people in certain groups,” Flint said.
In the classroom, a lack of representation in Advanced Placement and Honors courses may affect overall academic achievement among Latinx students, according to Roque Morales.
“If students are underrepresented, they can have trouble envisioning themselves taking those classes and can feel discouraged,” Roque Morales said.
Sophomore Andrea Mateo said that her experience in supportive and diverse AP classes, such as AP English Language and Composition, create an environment where more students feel comfortable and connected to their peers.
On the other hand, Mia Lawrence, senior and president of the Black Student Union, said that lack of representation contributes to prejudice within advanced courses, as well as lack of confidence among black students.
“[Some students] probably struggle with just trying to even get by in these classes,” Lawrence said. “People are making them feel like they’re stupid, making [them] feel like they don’t belong there.”
According to Flint, research shows that racial bias in the classroom can impact minority students’ academic achievement.
“[A question we should be asking is] is there systemic racism?” Flint said. “That doesn’t mean it’s coming from a malicious point, but is there a bias that is embedded into the system?”
Another factor that affects student success is immigration status, according to Assistant Principal Carmen Gomez, many students who immigrate to the United States live in SED households. Responsibilities to help provide for one’s family can often override academic and extracurricular pursuits.
“It’s not a lack of trying or wanting to [succeed],” Gomez said. “It’s [that] they have to juggle a lot of things. Getting food on the table and helping their parents while they’re working… are more important than [studying for a test].”
Additionally, parents who are unfamiliar with English can struggle to assist their children academically if they have questions regarding concepts learned in class.
“There’s a dimension to persistent underachievement among certain groups that can’t completely be explained away by income,” Flint said. “We definitely need to provide more resources to low-income students, but we also need to look at our approach, our values, our identification, and our practices.”
The district has implemented several initiatives, such as the Advancement Via Individual Determination program, summer preparatory courses, and chromebook availability, that Harding said he hopes will reduce the gap in student opportunity and ease students’ transition to high school.
The AVID program assists first-generation students to fill in gaps of “cultural capital,” a term AVID teacher Kim Rogers said the program uses to describe the information that families gain by going to college. In order to address this, the program offers in-class academic support and field trips to companies like Google and Intel.
Mateo said that the program has helped her build the confidence to become an advocate for herself in the classroom.
Additionally, summer education programs Elevate and Elearn provide support to students who need to meet graduation requirements. Harding said these more recent programs assist students more effectively than past initiatives, and are a step in bridging the opportunity gap.
The school also added a second full-time employee in the College and Career Center and extended the Tutorial Center’s hours to provide SED students with more college and academic support, according to Principal David Grissom.
This year, the district will hold its third year of the bilingual parent outreach group, Parent Institute for Quality Education. Mainly serving Spanish and Mandarin speaking parents. the program guides them through the requirements for high school graduation, the college admissions and financial aid process, and resources such as Aeries and Naviance. At the end of the eight week course, parents graduate from the program with a better understanding of their students academic and social, and become more involved with the student community.
However, Flint said that there is more the district can do, specifically in regard to prejudice against minority groups. According to Flint, one of the most important actions a school can take is having a community conversations to expose the district to first-hand perspectives of the issue and who it’s affecting.
“We should be starting from the perspective that all students can achieve,” Flint said. “If we truly believe that and you see sizeable and persistent differences between groups you have a couple options,” You can put [the blame] on the kids and say, these kids aren’t smart or these kids have failed in some way, or you can say we have failed the kids.”
Additionally, Flint said that it’s important for schools to investigate their own institutions for bias against minority students. He recommended bringing in an outside organization who specializes in equity in order to lead specific workshops.
Although the district and school have taken several measures in hope to mitigate the achievement gap, little, if anything, has improved. While the number of SED students who have met and surpassed standards has increased, so have the number of non-SED students, resulting in an unchanging gap in student achievement. Harding and Navarro both acknowledged this and said that there is no “silver bullet” to solving the issue, but did not mention any new programs the district is planning on implementing in the future.
Beyond our school, many schools in California struggle to adequately and effectively address the achievement, which Flint largely attributes to lack of state funding at the K-12 level. California has the fifth largest economy in the world, yet it ranks 41st in the nation for per pupil spending, according to the California Budget and Policy Center. “Over generations, when you see kids from certain groups that are behind, that is a systemic problem,” Flint said. “It’s not the students’ problem.”
Abby Porter and Orianna Swartz contributed to this article.