KSD Task Force to Eliminate Opportunity & Achievement Gaps

The Achievement Gap in the Kirkwood School District is very real. Overall student achievement scores for the district consistently rank at or near the top among districts in St. Louis County and the State of Missouri. Far too many students of color, however – and specifically students who are African American – continue to perform below proficiency expectations on standardized achievement tests. There is little doubt that our testing system is flawed, even biased, but we cannot use this as an excuse for not meeting the needs of our students of color. We must hold ourselves accountable for the success of all students.

Former Superintendent Dr. Tom Williams, directed by the Board of Education, convened a Task Force in Spring 2015 to study and eliminate the achievement gap among white and African American students in the Kirkwood School District. The Task Force was diverse in its membership, co-chaired by Darnel Frost and Bryan Painter, and was comprised of roughly sixty representatives from our schools and the community. The committee met nine times over twelve months, sharing ideas, exploring data, and engaging in challenging, often emotional conversations about race, opportunity, and a history of false optimism and hurt feelings.

Two previous district committees have met and presented plans to address African American achievement in last twenty-five years – first in 1990 and again in 2003. Many current teachers, parents, and community members were well aware of these reports – and the relatively little meaningful change that came from them. Some were heavily involved in the 1990 and/or 2003 planning and subsequent work and understandably had to be convinced that this Task Force was worth their time and energy. Our current membership could not ignore Kirkwood’s lack of significant progress in addressing achievement gaps, nor the frustration evident among many in our community. It quickly became apparent that anything we recommend going forward, as a Task Force, will at best be viewed with cautionary, measured optimism and will require “quick wins” and immediate results. We must have an answer for “What will make this time any different?”

Kirkwood has recently put considerable energy and time into understanding educational equity over last 5-8 years, driven by a district-wide UNITE committee and supported by pockets of work in some schools and departments. Annual staff development days have been committed to training and conversations about bias, privilege, and race – all very important in our efforts to develop cultural understandings, embrace diversity, and close gaps in achievement. Some schools and departments have dug deeper into inequities and built a culture where courageous conversations about race are the norm. There has not, however, been commitment in every building and across the district to continue this work for all staff beyond district staff development days. Isolated changes have led to isolated improvements, and achievement gaps remain despite the district’s focus on educational equity. In some areas, those gaps have actually grown.

It quickly became apparent that anything we recommend going forward, as a Task Force, will at best be viewed with cautionary, measured optimism and will require “quick wins” and immediate results. We must have an answer for “What will make this time any different?”

Many people have come and gone in our district over the last twenty-five years. From the classroom to the Board Room, caring educators have acted with good intentions to meet the needs of all students in Kirkwood. Yet the facts remain that two official plans spanning twenty-five years have led to relatively minor improvements with little meaningful change to improve black achievement. Additional efforts around educational equity have not yet closed gaps in achievement. Looking back at these plans and subsequent endeavors, we can make an argument for what has not worked - and perhaps what is needed to make our 2015-16 actions more successful.

  • Based on conversations with many who were active in 1990/2003 planning, previous plans may not have always benefitted from a deep commitment to change at high levels within the district. In addition, there was not a widespread belief, top-down and bottom-up, that institutional bias or racism impacts how we educate children of color and thus their achievement. Conviction at the top often brings with it positional influence and, when necessary, resources to support change. The Board of Education and Superintendent drove our current Task Force, while a Task Force co-chair currently serves as President of the Board. Even with current finances impacting our efforts, top-down support for meaningful change has likely never been stronger in our district.
  • More recent efforts to educate staff about educational equity, bias, and privilege have yet to yield adequate results, perhaps because the work has not been consistent – across time and locations. While some in the district have been regularly immersed in efforts to address inequities and close opportunity gaps, many have had no obligation to participate in these efforts on a regular basis. Isolated efforts have yielded isolated pockets of growth, with notable improvement in some schools and departments. The need remains for systemic, required work across all schools and around the district and community. Our current plan will require a shared commitment from everyone if we are to see systemic change and academic growth of which we can all be proud.

Photo Credit: Claudia Matthews

Photo Credit: Megan Villier

Photo Credit: Mallie Royer

While the Task Force was convened specifically to address gaps in achievement, a number of additional variables must be addressed if we are to truly meet the needs of all students in Kirkwood. African American students are suspended from Kirkwood schools at a rate and pace that far outdistance their white counterparts. A disproportionate number of African American students are identified for tiered supports and/or special education services, while very few black children qualify for gifted services in our district. Addressing these and other inequities will require training for educators and cooperative partnerships with families. Relationships must be strengthened through aggressive outreach and sincere commitments between home and school, but none of this will matter if district policies, practices, and curriculum favor some students at the expense of others. The 2015-16 Task Force plan calls for audits of how we do business, what we teach students, and the environments in which we work and learn.

It is difficult to study achievement discrepancies along racial lines without exploring the impact of affluence and poverty on student learning. The Task Force recognizes the widening opportunity gap and potential achievement gap that exists between students of higher and lower income families. A recently published article in Education Week (5/11/2016) supported this relationship, highlighting significant gaps in affluent communities and including the Kirkwood School District among the examples. We firmly believe, however, that African American achievement gaps cannot be explained away by focusing solely on issues of wealth or poverty. If we are to achieve meaningful change, we must attend to courageous conversations about race.

There was much discussion on the Task Force about the Achievement Gap itself – even whether or not we should use this label in reference to our students. Our district, and even our educational system, has systematically failed many students of color. While achievement scores of white students are higher as a group, our goal is not for our African American students to meet those scores and thus close that gap. Our goal is to work with intention and close the gap between where our students are currently scoring and where we believe they can and should score – at high levels on any measure we may use.

To do so, we must work together to close opportunity gaps and take shared responsibility in the academic, social-emotional, and physical needs of each of our students. Commitment, collaboration, and love must prevail.

The Task Force worked in varied lens groups, generating sixty-five initial action steps to eliminate our achievement gap. Action steps fell into seven general themes or objectives, listed below.

  1. We will learn from others.
  2. We will ensure that our systems, practices, and policies are equitable.
  3. We will engage our community to build shared ownership and responsibility for the success of all.
  4. We will exhibit shared leadership that is courageous, collaborative, and transformative.
  5. We will ensure that all staff members can successfully meet the varied needs of diverse learners.
  6. We will teach into an inclusive curriculum that represents and respects diverse cultures and promotes rigorous and relevant instruction for all.
  7. We will ensure that all learning environments are inclusive and reflect a commitment to the success of all students.

Initial work by the Task Force has been shared through multiple public conversations and engagement opportunities, both with community members and teacher/principal groups, and feedback has been woven into plans and the report itself. Additional details are presented in the full report, along with related data, contextual information, possible resources, and information about our Task Force process and membership. Given the need for “quick wins” and immediate results, the report also includes a list of recommended actions for Year One of the plan (2016-2017). It is our expectation that the Task Force plan be reviewed annually, growing and changing over time as we learn from others and seek feedback within the community.

Photo Credit: Sam Smith