Long Beach Schools Improve, But Achievement Gaps Persist

Long Beach Schools Improve, But Achievement Gaps Persist

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LONG BEACH -- Long Beach Unified might want to hide the report card it got last month. The district received an overall grade of “D+” for its effectiveness at serving low-income Latino and African American students in a study released by Education-Trust-West (ETW).

More troubling still, the district received a failing grade when it came to the achievement gap separating white students from their Latino and African American peers.

The California-based policy, research and advocacy organization, which seeks to increase student achievement in the state’s K-12 schools, handed out report cards to dozens of California's largest school districts to measure how they are serving these groups. Using data culled from the California Department of Education website, grades were based on Academic Performance Index (API) scores and graduation data for the 2011 and 2012 school years.

The overall district grades were determined by averaging out grades given across four distinct areas: academic performance, academic improvement, achievement gaps and college-readiness.

Long Beach Unified received an average grade of “C” for performance and improvement, for both low-income students and students of color. College readiness was a mixed bag, with LBUSD receiving a “C” for its graduation rates for those same students, but a “D” for college eligibility.

Latinos account for 54 percent of all LBUSD students, with African Americans comprising 16 percent. Whites currently account for 15 percent of all students in the district. Seventy percent qualify as low-income.

Multiple Causes

“As a student who has gone through LBUSD, I can say that the report card is absolutely accurate,” said Chris Covington, 22, who is of mixed African American, Mexican, Irish, Scottish and Chinese heritage.

“When I went to see a counselor, I was automatically just put in any class. I was not put into a class that addressed the A through G requirements,” said Covington, referring to the high school courses required for entry into the University of California (UC) and California State University (CSU) systems.

Covington also pointed to the “zero tolerance” approach to school discipline as helping to widen the achievement gap. “When I was in high school, my teacher would have referrals ready for me, to kick me out of class,” he said. Discouraged, he eventually dropped out of high school, but was hooked back in through a restorative justice program – an alternative conflict resolution model -- at Reid High School. With the help of mentors there, Covington was able to graduate on time.

In the last school year, African-Americans in the district accounted for 43 percent of all in-school suspensions, according to the California Department of Education.

“If the student is not in the class learning, then they’re not on track to graduate,” said Covington, who noted research showing an (LBUSD) student is “suspended every 19 minutes.”

Today, Covington is a mentor himself, working with Long Beach youth through a local organization, Khmer Girls in Action (KGA). He suggested that the racial achievement gaps in city schools are likely more extreme than the ETW report suggests, given the complex racial dynamics of the city.

Ethnic Khmer students from Cambodia and other Asian minorities, for example, are lumped together under the catch-all banner of Asian Pacific Islander (API), so the problems they face often go unseen due to the common misperception that all Asian students are high achieving.

“In reality, Khmer students are having trouble with [academic] achievement and with graduation rates,” he said. The city’s Khmer families, he explained, also tend to live in poverty-stricken neighborhoods around Central Long Beach, which has one of the largest Cambodian populations in the world, outside of Southeast Asia.

Malachy Keo, a 17-year-old senior at Polytechnic High School and also a member of KGA, said economic pressures at home make it difficult for him to envision going to college, let alone focus on his daily schoolwork. “My mom’s always stressing out on work and money,” said Keo. “I’m almost finishing school and I want to be able to graduate so I can help support (my mom).”

“It’s hard for parents to be strong and keep going,” he added. “Their kids gotta’ drop school and get money to help support them. Most of them [the children] will drop out and just slang” – sell drugs -- to get by.

A Different Perspective

“The latest Education Trust report contradicts every other independent review of our school district’s performance,” said Chris Eftychiou, LBUSD’s Public Information Director, via e-mail.

Eftychiou cited numerous statistics, studies, and awards commending the district, including a Global Education Study that highlighted LBUSD as one of five top performing districts worldwide; a Dispelling the Myth Award given by ETW to LBUSD for implementing district-wide improvements; and a Broad Foundation report that showed LBUSD’s African-Americans, Latinos and low-income students outperform state standards.

“The unfortunate result is that rather than dispelling myths [about African American and Latino students], Ed Trust is now perpetuating them,” said Eftychiou.

Arun Ramanathan is the executive director of Education Trust-West. He acknowledged LBUSD’s recent successes, but said the data pointed to serious issues.

“We know Long Beach is touted as a top district in California. When we saw their data, we were surprised -- very surprised,” he said. “It’s not our data. It’s the state’s data,” he added. “We have the greatest level of respect for folks down there, but the data is the data.”

LBUSD wasn’t the only district that fared poorly. Los Angeles Unified also earned an overall grade of a “D+” in the ETW report, while two other large school districts, San Francisco (“D”) and Oakland Unified (“D-“) received even lower scores.

The school district with the highest overall grade in the state, by comparison, was Baldwin Park Unified in Los Angeles County. Ninety-four percent of Baldwin Park students are low-income and 91 percent are Latino. The next two highest graded districts are also in Southern California – Los Alamitos Unified in Orange County, and San Marcos Unified in San Diego.

Still, while competing views abound, most agree the future for LBUSD looks promising. District funding is expected to almost double from $6,200 to $11,000 per pupil over the next eight years should Gov. Jerry Brown’s new funding formula for public schools pass, according to ETW.

“We will have some increase in resources,” said Virginia Torres, president of the Teacher’s Association of Long Beach. She is optimistic the revenue will help ease the racial and class disparities in education – disparities found not only in Long Beach but also in districts across the state.

Michael Lovano is a community reporter for Voicewaves, a youth-led community news hub founded by New America Media.