First of three parts

WEST HARTFORD–Xavier Rosa is stuck. The fourth-grader at Braeburn Elementary School knows that five is not a factor of 57-he got the question right on his homework assignment. And he knows that any number that ends in five is divisible by five. But his teacher, Michele Cashman, presses him to remember what the other half of the rule is, asking him how many cents he would have if he had two nickels.

braeburn 1

Fourth-grader Xavier Rosa, sets up a science experiment with teacher Michele Cashman (l) and paraprofessional Robin Rothman

“Ten,” he says.

“So, what’s in the one’s place?”

“Five,” he guesses, as other students impatiently wave their hands in the air for a chance to answer.

With just a little more back and forth, Xavier lands on the right answer: Numbers ending in five or zero can be divided by five. As Cashman moves on to the next problem, Xavier kneels on his chair, props one elbow on his desk and keeps the other hand high in the air every time his teacher asks a question.

Xavier is one of 46 students in the 438-student school who qualify for free or reduced-priced lunch, a widely used proxy for low-income status. Most are from the neighborhood around Braeburn; some, like Xavier, are among the 16 students bused in from Hartford as part of a desegregation program.

At first glance, the school’s test scores indicate that Braeburn is nothing but an excellent school. In 2010, 92 percent of students were proficient in math, while the percentages for reading and writing were 88 and 93, respectively. But Braeburn’s low-income students fared less well: 79 percent reached proficiency in math, while 63 and 69 percent did so in reading and writing, respectively. Xavier was one of the many who did not hit the benchmarks.

In West Hartford, test scores are rising. But the difference in the percentages of low-income students and their more affluent peers who achieve proficiency has been stuck at around 20 percent despite years of reforms. Although Connecticut is typically praised for its schools, disparities in the performance of students from different socioeconomic backgrounds–which are often referred to as the “achievement gap”–reveal that, in truth, the state has significant inequities in its educational system.

In fact, Connecticut has the nation’s largest achievement gap when it’s measured by students’ socioeconomic status. In 2007, Connecticut’s low-income eighth-graders finished 49th out of 50 on a national math exam, beating out their low-income peers only in Alabama, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), commonly referred to as the Nation’s Report Card.

The traditional way of thinking about the achievement gap has been “the gap between Hartford and West Hartford,” said William Ginsberg, president of the Community Foundation for Greater New Haven and a member of the Connecticut Commission on Educational Achievement, convened by former Gov. M. Jodi Rell to recommend ways to close the gap. But actually, Ginsberg says, “this is the gap between how our low-income children are performing as opposed to our non-low-income children. This gap exists in every community in Connecticut.”

Addressing these gaps within individual districts and schools is crucial if Connecticut hopes to reduce its overall achievement gap. But a look at Braeburn shows just how difficult doing so can be.

Changing demographics challenge suburban schools

Three entire grade-levels: That was the size of the gap between Connecticut’s low-income students and their more affluent peers on the fourth- and eighth-grade NAEP reading tests in 2009. By this measure, Connecticut ranked dead-last out of all 50 states.

achievement gap chart

And it’s not just because the state’s affluent students perform extraordinarily well. Overall, Connecticut’s low-income students are outperformed by low-income students in more than 30 states on the nationwide test.

While the number of people living at or below the poverty level–$22,350 for a family of four in 2011–remained steady at about 33 percent in Hartford between 2000 and 2008, its suburbs in Middlesex, Tolland and Hartford counties saw a 1.3 percentage point increase in the poverty rate, or about 71,611 people.

The entire state has also seen an influx of immigrants. Between 2000 and 2006, Connecticut’s foreign-born population grew by over 20 percent, with 76,000 new immigrants moving into the state.

West Hartford, which has long attracted upper-middle-class families with its school system’s reputation for excellence and which ranked 55th on CNN Money’s 2010 list of the top 100 small cities, has an image as an affluent enclave on Hartford’s border.  While the town does have its share of pricey subdivisions, it also has lower-income neighborhoods, including some Section 8 federally-subsidized housing.

The demographics of West Hartford’s student population also are affected by its participation in Open Choice, part of the court-mandated effort to desegregate Hartford’s schools, but only minutely: Just 112 city residents, Xavier among them, are enrolled in the 10,000-student district.

The immigrant wave did not miss West Hartford either.  Sixty-six different languages are spoken in the schools. And there’s a strong correlation between immigration and poverty for children: seventy percent of English Language Learners in Connecticut also qualify for free or reduced-priced lunch. In all, over 18 percent of West Hartford’s 10,000 students are classified as low-income.

Low-income students, regardless of whether they’re from a city or suburb, face the same hurdles the day they walk into kindergarten. “The economic status of the family that a child comes from is the biggest predictor of academic achievement – even more than the school they attend,” said Richard Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at The Century Foundation, a nonprofit public policy research institution.

Achievement starts at home

Xavier is known among teachers as the “little mayor of Braeburn.” Sitting in the school’s cafeteria, enthusiastically relating the plot of his favorite book, Frindle, Xavier keeps pausing to wave and smile at peers and teachers. The book, in which ten-year-old Nick Allen decides to rename all pens “frindles,” is right at a fourth-grade reading level-and Xavier’s ability to understand it is testimony to just how far he’s come.

His mother gave up on the struggling Hartford school system when he was in kindergarten and decided to enroll him in Open Choice, a program begun in the 1960s as Project Concern and folded into the state’s strategy to comply with 1998’s Sheff v. O’Neill settlement that buses students from Hartford to schools in surrounding communities. Right now, 1,300 Hartford students attend schools in 28 different suburbs. Sixteen – including Xavier and his sister, a second-grader – attend Braeburn.

Oft-cited research by Betty Hart and Todd Risley found that the children of professionals have heard 32 million more–and often more complex–spoken words by the age of four than the children of poor parents. Other studies have shown that low-income first-graders have a vocabulary just half the size of their peers. And because vocabulary is seen as key to mastering reading, such disparities put low-income children at a big disadvantage from the very start of their school careers.

Differences in home life can often mean not only that the gap exists early on, but also that it persists. Many students in West Hartford have college-educated parents who volunteer at school and undertake educationally enriching activities with their children-not to mention that they may well be at home when their children return from school each day.

But for a parent like Maria Rosa, who works as a secretary for the Capitol Region Education Council and is raising four children ages 2 to 9 with her currently-unemployed husband, finding time in the day to, say, drop by school to pick up her kids is difficult.

Xavier, though, is luckier than many other low-income students. He has a stable family life and parents who ensure he completes his homework. Some low-income students may come from much more disruptive home environments or have parents working two jobs who simply don’t have the time or resources to help with schoolwork.

“Everybody is trying to figure out how to reduce the achievement gap,” West Hartford Superintendent Karen List said. “It’s certainly much more than what we can do in a school district. It’s housing, it’s pre-K, it’s pre-natal.”

West Hartford hasn’t ignored this reality in its reforms. The district has introduced pre-K into two of its schools. Also, it has a family resource center for new immigrants to acquaint them with available services. Social workers help families with everything from finding a new refrigerator to a doctor.

But there is only so much the schools can do to intervene in students’ home lives. Therefore, much of the focus of reducing the achievement gap centers on instructional aspects that the district can directly control for the 900 hours a year they have a child in the classroom.

Long days, and a measure of success

Xavier’s days are long. He’s on a bus by 7:30 a.m.–hanging around the middle section, he says, away from the mean kids at the back–and doesn’t get home until about 4:30 or 5 pm, after which he finishes all of his homework and practices answering CMT questions that his mother has downloaded from the school’s website.

After three and a half years of working with a specialist one-on-one and in groups, he’s reading at grade level now but still needs a little extra help in math. He adores the teachers who have helped him get this far, describing them as “the best.”

Back in Room 124 going over that math homework, Xavier waves his hand enthusiastically in the air, wanting another crack at solving a math problem. He gets his chance a few moments later, converting 7/10 into a decimal: “a period and then a seven.”

Moments later, students pair up to complete one last worksheet before bundling up to head out into the snow. Xavier–who will end up at his teacher’s desk for guidance on most of the questions–first wanders over to his partner, who looks up at him and says, “This has been so boring.”

Xavier, though, has a different view. Standing up and stretching his arms, he counters, “I love this.”

This story is first in a series produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, nonpartisan education-news outlet affiliated with the Hechinger Institute on Education and the Media, based at Teachers College, Columbia University. Other stories are:

Leave a comment