Closing the Opportunity Gap in Schools

Even in progressive Arlington, white students have opportunities that many students of color don't have. How do we change that?

Opportunity gaps also tend to compound over time. BPA’s analysis revealed that fewer than half of Black APS students graduate with an advanced diploma, whereas more than four out of five white students do. It’s not because white kids are smarter or more driven, says Kerns, who co-chairs NAACP Arlington’s Education Committee with Walker. Sometimes a student’s decision about whether to pursue more rigorous courses stems from support and encouragement from teachers and school counselors. Or if the student has learning differences that are detected and addressed early.

“Implicit biases can prompt teachers and administrators to look for giftedness among children with specific behavior markers,” Kerns says. “For example, well-behaved students may tend to be selected for identification and related review, while children without that particular marker could be excluded from further consideration.”

Students who are recognized as gifted receive differentiated instruction after review of a portfolio demonstrating their potential for above-grade-level performance. (Walker’s daughter is one such student; she was identified for gifted services in both reading/language arts and math.) However, if a child is not identified, parents can request consideration and, if needed, pay for outside evaluations to bolster their case.

Gregory points out that implicit biases can also feed instances of grade inflation. “Bias can mean that we decrease the standards we have for some students because we think they’re not capable of the work,” he explains. “It can lead us to feel sorry for [them]. We don’t increase the rigor or hold them to higher expectations because we don’t want to give them more than what we think they can handle. We have to be careful not to shift our expectations too far down; we have to hold everyone to a high standard of academic rigor.”

In a county where the average median income for white households is more than double that of Black households ($134,723 versus $58,878, according to Census data), white parents are a force.

Perhaps without even realizing it, “nice white parents” (to quote the well-known podcast by New York Times reporter Chana Joffe-Walt) have cleaved an ever-widening opportunity gap for families that can’t afford outside tutors, don’t feel comfortable being the squeaky wheel, are less adept at navigating the system due to language barriers, or can’t meet with teachers during school hours because of work or transportation obstacles. These disadvantages often fall on families of color, and on schools with larger minority populations.

It’s an imbalance the new APS administration has been fighting to change. “We’re working to shed the reputation that APS is a ‘system of schools’ rather than a ‘school system,’ ” Superintendent Francisco Durán acknowledges. “We don’t have division-wide expectations or school resource divisions that address these issues system-wide. We need to have deeper discussions about…closing the opportunity gap, about what resources we’re putting in place across every school. No matter which school you go to, you should have the same experience, expectation and opportunity.”

Durán is especially intent on developing a consistent framework for foundational literacy—so that by fourth grade, when kids stop learning to read and start reading to learn, everyone is on a level playing field. “We know that our schools serve different populations that may come from different deficits in different areas of literacy,” he says. “So depending on which school you go to, you may have a different experience, and that in and of itself may create an opportunity gap.”

Brian Stockton, Durán’s chief of staff, has spent the past year listening to stories from a broad spectrum of APS families, including Walker’s. (Walker is now a member of the Superintendent’s Advisory Committee for Equity and Excellence.) “Dr. Durán’s mission is to know every child by need and by name. He has instilled this philosophy in all of us,” says Stockton, who was appointed to the role in June 2020.

The listening has provided helpful and sometimes significant insights. For example, when Walker and her NAACP colleagues introduced Stockton to Dyslexic Edge Academy, a program offering free dyslexia identification and intervention services to families that can’t afford expensive third-party clinical evaluations, Stockton advocated to bring it to Arlington schools. Developed in partnership with Virginia Tech’s Thinkabit Lab and based in Falls Church, the academy has joined APS in a two-year pilot program that (as of press time) was expected to start in August. “Our job is to listen to the community,” Stockton says, “and find more resources for what our families need.”

Or, in some cases, defend those needs.

Daryl Johnson, director of strategic outreach at APS, had to do just that in 2019 when a cost-cutting proposal threatened to eliminate equity and excellence coordinators from the APS budget. “These coordinators support our students of color—they talk to them about their postgraduation options, encourage them to apply to college,” Johnson says. “If you’re not a student or family of color, you don’t appreciate the work that they do or how important they are to the success of our students.”

Milenka Coronel, who graduated from Lake Braddock Secondary School in Fairfax in 2005, can attest to this. “Most [school] counselors don’t have the time to get to know you, and they end up making assumptions that because you’re Black or brown, you don’t have high aspirations,” she says.

“In my junior year, my college counselor took one look at me and said, ‘You’re going to NOVA,’ just like all the other students who looked like me,” says Coronel, who is Hispanic. “I had a good GPA and I was well-rounded. I’d wanted to go to a four-year college, but I didn’t even apply because of what my counselor said.”
Coronel started out at NOVA, then transferred to the University of Maryland, earning a degree in sociology with a focus on teen programming. She did it all in three years. Looking back at her high school experience, she says, “I wish I had believed in myself more.”

Today, as assistant director of resident services at AHC, a nonprofit provider of affordable housing based in Arlington, she works with many Black and Latino students from low-income families. She strives to instill in others the confidence she once lacked. “Someone is always going to discourage these kids, either directly or indirectly,” she says. “I tell them, ‘Don’t let anyone bring you down. Learn how to be proactive. Ask teachers for help. Seek out advanced classes.’ ”

Of the dozens of students she counsels every year, she says the ones who thrive are often those who connect with the equity and excellence coordinators in their high schools. “The assigned guidance counselors tend to have such a heavy caseload that they don’t really have time to get to know the students,” Coronel says. “The equity and excellence coordinators dig deeper, take the time to help them make the right decisions.”

Categories: Education