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Test results reveal stark achievement gaps by race, income in Erie County schools

The achievement gap between minority and white students in Erie County is wider than it is statewide.

So is the achievement gap between students who come from poor backgrounds and their more affluent peers.

What’s more, across all racial groups, minority students in Erie County fare worse academically than their peers across the state.

The most recent state testing data showed that the percent of Erie County black students considered proficient in English was 31 percentage points lower than their white peers, compared to a 20-point gap statewide. In math, the local gap was nearly 37 percentage, compared to 27 points for the state.

A similar gap persisted between poor students and their more affluent peers in Erie County, with a difference of 33 and 35 points in English and math, respectively.

The data underscore the piercing inequities that exist across New York’s education system  - inequities that are particularly pronounced in Erie County, which one study found has some of the most segregated schools in the country.

The data also raise the question of what should be done to address the disparities in access that can ultimately set the course for a child's future, including exploring a countywide school system.

The inequities are the focus of a panel discussion Friday being hosted by the New York State School Boards Association, which is holding its annual meeting at the Buffalo Niagara Convention Center.

"Race matters, poverty matters and some people's desire to not see either of those matters," said Assemblywoman Crystal Peoples-Stokes. "I don't know how you get past that. If one of us doesn't succeed, then none of us do."

Schools remain heavily segregated

The conversation comes as the student population becomes more diverse and districts must figure out how to make sure all children have the resources they need to succeed. National data indicate that for the first time minority children under the age of five outnumber white kids, and it's a fairly even split among school-age children. At the same time, schools remain heavily segregated - particularly across district lines - with most minority children heavily concentrated in certain urban districts.

But the equity issue isn't as much about race as class, which are often correlated. Research consistently reinforces a connection between family income and a student's academic performance. So when schools are as heavily racially and economically segregated as they are in New York, that drives a pattern of inequity that leaves some districts serving vast numbers of students with greater needs, overwhelming the system and setting many of those children up for failure.

"We have much more diverse communities, yet the discrepancies between the haves and the have-nots seem to be more apparent," said Timothy G. Kremer, executive director of the School Boards Association.

That is evident reviewing the annual testing performance of schools in Erie County. Those with more affluent populations such as East Aurora, Williamsville and Clarence, rise to the top of the pack. In all three, the population of white students is greater than 90 percent.

Conversely, in the Buffalo Public Schools, which consistently fall to the bottom of the rankings, roughly 80 percent of students are poor, about two-thirds are black or Hispanic, and the district also serves high numbers of students who are learning English and those with special needs.

"The correlation is obvious," said Buffalo Teachers Federation President Philip Rumore. "The poorest school districts are all overwhelmingly minority."

Many educators on both sides of the divide acknowledge that  these inequities have an adverse effect on all students, both those in poor districts and those in wealthier ones.

In poorer districts, the high concentration of children living in poverty means students come to school with added baggage - hunger, housing instability, exposure to crime and violence - that can affect how well they do in the classroom.

Meanwhile, some suburban school leaders say the lack of diversity isolates their students from people of other backgrounds.

And, as the population becomes more diverse, many suburban districts are finding their student makeup also is shifting.

Between 2002 and 2012, 37 of the 38 districts in Erie and Niagara counties experienced a growth in the percentage of minority students. In half of the districts, the minority population grew by at least 5 percentage points. Seven districts saw a growth in their minority population of 10 percentage points or more: Amherst, Lockport, Williamsville, Cheektowaga-Maryvale, Sweet Home, Cleveland Hill and Cheektowaga.

Looking for answers

The statistics documenting the achievement gap signal a need for change, but history suggests answers don't come easy.

Some say the problem is in funding, with one study by the national education think tank Ed Trust showing that New York is among states where the highest-poverty districts receive fewer state and local funds than their wealthier counterparts. Ed Trust ranked New York in the top three for states with the greatest funding inequities, behind Illinois and Pennsylvania. States such as New Jersey, that have taken steps to close the funding gap, saw similar progress in closing the achievement gap.

Local educators say the state's new push for community schools could be a mechanism for getting more resources into schools with greater needs. They say the model will provide the kind of support - access to health care, after-school programs, educational opportunities for parents - that will enable students from low-income backgrounds to be more successful.

"Community schools and broadening support for students and families is a mechanism to alleviate those disparities," said Buffalo School Board President Barbara A. Seals Nevergold.

Still, other educators say solutions lie in setting priorities, both within schools and across systems.

"Historically, we have looked at funding as a way to address the inequities," said Shaun Nelms, a Rochester-area superintendent who will participate in Friday's panel.

"I want to challenge folks to think about how can we restructure the system successfully to make sure students and teachers have the resources they need to be successful. I want to talk about equity beyond funding," Nelms said, pointing to training as an example of how the funding might be better used.

Others, however, argue that meaningful change may only happen across district boundaries.

Despite a federal court order that aimed to better integrate the Buffalo Public Schools, the city schools are now more segregated than they were when the original civil rights lawsuit was filed in the 1970s.

"At the time, the minority population was roughly 30 percent. Today, we're still busing and the minority population is roughly 80 percent," Buffalo School Board Member Carl P. Paladino said during a recent national panel on education. "Because of the dysfunctionality of the school system, it caused a wave of people over the years leaving the city because they weren't going to send their children to a dysfunctional public school. As a result, they ran out to the suburbs and restarted their lives."

Although the segregation, and related performance gaps, are not unique to Erie County, a recent report by the Civil Rights Project put the area in the top 3 percent of the country for its failure to integrate students.

The 2014 report found that two out of every five black students in the Buffalo Niagara region – 40 percent – attended a school where less than 10 percent of the student enrollment was white, although white students make up more than 70 percent of the overall metro population.

Similarly, white students here overwhelmingly attended schools where fewer than 10 percent of students were black.

Other regions have made greater strides in striking a racial balance.

In Wake County, N.C., school and political leaders integrated the school system by putting a 40 percent limit on the percent of students who qualify for free or reduced priced lunch at each school. Voters in Memphis voted to dissolve the school district and merge it with the surrounding suburbs.

Nearby Monroe County has an urban-suburban program that allows students from the city to attend school in suburban districts, and vice versa.

"The unfairness, looking back, was that the federal judge didn't order busing of the entire county," added Paladino, who has previously advocated for a countywide school system. "He just limited it to the city and it was very destructive to our city’s growth over the years that he got himself involved with that because he didn’t know really what the end was going to be and the unfairness that came about.”

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