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Poor pupils are a priority, court is told

Official defends programs for low achievers in NLR by Cynthia Howell | January 28, 2010 at 4:38 a.m.

— The North Little Rock School District has surpassed the requirements of its longstanding desegregation plan for assisting low-achieving students, particularly poor black students, a district administrator testified Wednesday in federal court.

Latitia Martin, the district’s director of federal programs and testing, was the sole witness on the third day of a court hearing before U.S. District Judge Brian S. Miller on whether the North Little Rock district has complied with its 1987 desegregation plan and can be declared desegregated, or unitary.

If unitary, the district would be released from years of federal court monitoring of its gifted, special and compensatory education programs, its staffing practices, its student dropout prevention and discipline practices, and the condition of school campuses.

The topic Wednesday was compensatory education, which are initiatives to increase achievement among the district’s low-achieving students, who are predominantly poor and black. One of the purposes of the program is to narrow the academic achievement gap between black students and their white classmates who, on average, score higher on standardized tests.

“Over the years, North Little Rock has far exceeded the requirements of the desegregation plan and we have continued to do so,” Martin said.

Stephen Jones, an attorney for the North Little Rock district, guided Martin through the provisions of the desegregation plan that was written in 1987 and revised in 1992, asking how the district met the requirements calling for:

Evaluation of kindergarten children to identify their developmental levels.

Remedial reading programs at the junior highs and high schools.

Academic improvement plans based on student scores on state basic skills tests.

School counselors, library media specialists and social workers.

Computer-assisted instruction as a way for students to practice basic skills.

Summer school remediation programs for all ages of students.

Parent and business community involvement.

Teacher training.

Dropout prevention programs.

In many cases, Martin testified that the programs and initiatives were implemented but have since changed over the years because of new research on student learning, updated technology, and new and more comprehensive standardized tests that are administered at nearly every grade.

Despite the initial programs and their successors, the achievement gap in the North Little Rock district persists.

In 2004-05, for example, 19.9 percent of black elementary pupils scored at a proficient or better level on the state’s Benchmark Exam in math, compared with 63.7 percent of white students, a difference of 43.8 percentage points, district officials have testified this week.

Last school year, 50.8 percent of black elementary pupils scored at grade level or better on the state test, as did 87.1 percent of white pupils, a difference of 36.3 percentage points.

Miller, the judge, at one point questioned Martin about the racial disparity and earlier testimony that low achievement is the result of poverty.

“I’m wondering whether North Little Rock has done a study to determine how to best serve these underprivileged children. I’m listening to the testimony and all the programs that you do. But I saw the disparity that continues on. I wonder how all of those programs really affect achievement,” Miller said.

Martin responded that the district can implement the programs and implement them well, but that some children in the district come from families that are struggling to meet basic needs and, as a result, the children do not have the language skills or knowledge of numbers, letters, animals and colors that other children have. Some have never crossed the Arkansas River or seen the state Capitol or visited the Little Rock Zoo, she said.

“Survival in poverty is more difficult than I can even imagine,” Martin told Miller.

“My family was poor but not like that,” she added. “Survival has to be their priority.”

Martin told the judge that teachers work hard to identify and teach to the needs of individual children. They can help the students make great progress in the course of a school year but not always catch them up to their peers who are from middle class and more affluent families.

“We look at the data so carefully. Both groups of students are making enormous strides,” she said of students grouped by income. “While you are teaching and doing everything you can for one group of children, the other [more affluent] children are moving forward as well.”

She told the judge that students from poor families need to be able to form relationships with their teachers as a way to make academic gains. Research shows, she said, that there “won’t be significant learning without a significant relationship.”

Robert Pressman, an attorney for the Joshua intervenors, who are black students in the district, questioned Martin about the quality of implementation for the different initiatives.

He asked how concepts that look good on paper would result in only 2 percent of the district’s eighth-grade black students scoring at proficient levels on the 2000 Benchmark Exam in math and 78 percent scoring at the below-basic level, which is the lowest level.

Martin responded that the state Benchmark Exams were new in 2000. She said students in North Little Rock and across the state were not well-prepared for the test, which was based on revised state education standards and included open-response questions in addition to the more typical multiple-choice questions.

The district’s desegregation plan calls for all kindergarten programs to be implemented at every school with the goal of 100 percent attendance by all eligible students.

Jody Veit-Edrington, the district’s coordinator of early-childhood education, testified late Tuesday afternoon that the district has met the kindergarten requirement years ago but has established a prekindergarten program that serves 540 children ages 3 and 4 this year at some elementary schools and at the district’s Redwood Early Childhood Education Center. Of the 540 children, 411 are black, she said. Each of the classes is staffed with a certified teacher and a teacher’s aide.

Arkansas, Pages 11 on 01/28/2010

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