Urban School Districts Demonstrate How to Close the Achievement Gap

Closing the achievement gap in our public schools has proven to be a daunting task for many urban school districts.  However, two large urban school districts, in Gwinnet County, Georgia, and Orange County, Florida, have demonstrated that it can be done.  Recently, both of these districts were co-recipients of the $1 million Broad Prize which recognizes improvements in urban education.  Students in these districts will be eligible for college scholarships from this prize.  While there are some who deride the Broad Foundation  for its efforts, my purpose here is to examine the progress of these districts, and describe how they improved the educational outcomes for their disadvantaged students, so that other school districts can replicate these results.

Both school districts are very large.  Gwinnett County has over 169,000 students and Orange County has over 188,000 students.  Gwinnett County has a history of academic success which is likely influenced by the fact that it has had the same Superintendent, Alan Wilbanks, at its helm for 18 years. Academic qualitative analysis of the reasons for Gwinnett County’s ability to produce academic success for its students despite having 55% of them eligible for free & reduced lunch, resulting in increased graduation rates and narrowing the achievement gap include:

  • mentoring programs;
  • tutoring programs;
  • parental involvement; and
  • constant communication between the school, parents, and the community.

Orange County, Florida’s success is more recent, but as the 10th largest school district in the nation, which has 62% of its students eligible for free or reduced lunch, it is notable that it has:

  • A greater percentage of African-American students who are reaching advanced academic levels in Orange County than elsewhere in Florida;
  • Narrowed the achievement gap for both Hispanic students and low-income students; and
  • Increased both the participation and passage rates for Hispanic students taking  Advanced Placement tests.

Consistent leadership has also helped Orange County, as its current Superintendent Barbara Jenkins worked for 6 years under the prior Superintendent who served for 12 years before Ms. Jenkins took the helm. She attributes Orange County’s progress to:

  • a focus on data that the district uses to drive attention and resources to the weakest areas;
  • support from the community—including taxpayer approval of huge property tax increases to help fund school programs and stave off painful program cuts; and
  • centralizing curriculum, assessment, and professional development.

Closing the achievement gap is hard work, but consistent leadership, focusing resources on the most challenging students, and community and parental support, including financial support, are the keys to success.

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For more information on how I can help you accomplish progressive, effective systems change, contact Jeff Spitzer-Resnick by visiting his web site: Systems Change Consulting.

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