SMMUSD HDQTRS — Public schools here are excelling in preparing students of color for college, but are failing to make significant progress in closing the achievement gap that exists between white and minority students, according to a report released last month by an educational advocacy group.

The report by Education Trust-West found that the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District beat out 136 other districts for its record of putting minority students through the courses required for entrance into state universities.

Over 70 percent of minority students in the district make it through those courses. In the number two-ranked district, Claremont Unified, only 51 percent of those students graduated with the required courses.

SMMUSD schools use those courses as base requirements for graduation, unlike other schools in the state which do not have as high standards, said Carrie Hahnel, director of policy and research for Education Trust-West.

“What we find appalling is that rates of eligibility across the state are so low,” Hahnel said. “The reason Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District rises to the top at that measure is that its rates are quite high. The district is to be commended for achieving that.”

School officials were pleased that the standards had yielded such results, crediting a network of teachers, administrators and support staff that help ensure students excel in advanced coursework.

“I turned to page 7 of the report and got rather excited,” said Superintendent Tim Cuneo.

The report relies on numbers from 2010. The Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District had a total enrollment of 11,723 students, a quarter of whom were low-income, 6 percent African American and 27 percent Latino.

The district’s biggest failure lay in the gap between white and minority students for the Academic Performance Index, which is used by the state to measure how well students do on state tests, according to the report.

The district received failing grades for performance gaps comparing white students to both Latino and African-American students.

API scores range from 200 to 1,000, and the state Department of Education created a goal for all students to achieve an 800 or better.

While white students in SMMUSD averaged an API of 887, Latino students got 763, with low-income and African-American students lagging at 741 and 720 respectively.

Districts received a failing grade if the gap in those scores exceeded 120 points.

“The area that stood out for us was the achievement gap,” Hahnel said. “In peer achievement, there’s still a gulf.”

The disparity has long been noted, said Board of Education member Oscar de la Torre, and the district’s attempts to fix it have had limited success.

“Shamefully, there have been many promises made, but not all have been realized,” de la Torre said. “We need to hold ourselves accountable.”

SMMUSD has produced reports on equity and equality in education, as well as created a taskforce meant to address problems in education for students of color. Efforts have also been made to infuse more resources into classrooms through the district’s Equity Fund to keep kids from falling behind. The Equity Fund was adopted in 2004 and requires that 15 percent of certain donations and gifts given to individual schools be pooled together and distributed based on a weighted formula, with the goal of eliminating funding disparities and closing the achievement gap.

“Part of the solution is a reflection on our culture as an institution,” de la Torre said. “Do we have a public education system that lifts up students that come from challenging backgrounds, or students with a different culture from white middle class America?”

The school district recognizes the disparity, and is working to fix it through programs like the Young Collegians, which helps minority high school students attend classes at Santa Monica College to acclimate them to college life, Cuneo said.

“We want extraordinary achievement for all students, while closing the achievement gap, and we’re committed to it,” Cuneo said.

Beyond problems in achievement, the district is actually falling behind state averages in improving test scores for minority and low-income students.

“The overall state average is a 59 point increase,” said Lindsey Stuart, the data policy analyst with Education Trust-West that helped compile the report. “The district is not meeting the state, and the performance grades should be higher.”

Latino students actually beat the state average with a 63-point increase, but African-American and low-income students failed to meet that mark with a 41- and 38-point increase respectively.

Overall, the district received a C-minus for its work educating minority and low-income students.

The majority of districts graded received a similar score.

“In a minority-majority state like California, where Latino and low-income students comprise more than half of the student population, these statistics are downright dangerous to the state’s future prosperity,” the report reads.

The report stresses that SMMUSD is not alone in its struggles to reduce the achievement gap. It’s actually a state-wide problem, with huge implications for minority students.

“Every time we fail to educate a child, it’s an opportunity lost for upwards social mobility, and not just for that individual, but for the family,” de la Torre said.

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