Lockers in a Connecticut high school. Dave Wurtzel / Connecticut Public

Black and Latino students from several school districts in Connecticut are not meeting college preparedness benchmarks in standardized testing and college-level courses, according to data from the 2021-2022 school year.

The Interagency Council for Ending the Achievement Gap met on Tuesday to discuss ongoing initiatives targeted at helping students from marginalized communities succeed and prepare for higher education. Lt. Gov. Susan Bysiewicz facilitated the meeting, joined by representatives from various state departments and programs.

The council focused primarily on programs combating the social determinants that can affect students’ performance in school. State officials are working on new programs to improve children’s behavioral health services and reduce recidivism in the juvenile justice system, said Michael Williams, deputy commissioner of operations at the Department of Children and Families (DCF).

“The Juvenile Justice Policy Oversight Committee [will] work on interventions to stop kids from getting further involved in the juvenile justice system. That also includes a reentry plan for kids who are there and how they [can] enter back into communities,” Williams said. “We have a pivotal role in making sure kids [that are] coming out of institutions and going back into school districts are prepared to continue to learn.”

Housing insecurity is another issue the council discussed in relation to academic success. According to research from the Minnesota Office of Higher Education, students experiencing housing insecurity have markedly lower rates of enrollment in higher education and poorer performance in class than students who are in more stable environments.

Black and Latino households are more likely to face housing issues, such as eviction and delays in mortgage, rent and utility bill payments, than white households, according to a 2022 study.

Housing officials are continuing to work with the cross-agency program Head Start on Housing, which seeks to provide housing vouchers for Connecticut families affected by homelessness, said Shanté Hanks, deputy commissioner of the Department of Housing.

So far, the program has housed 35 families and plans to expand their services to about 100 families, according to Hanks.

“[Lack of] table housing and having that instability for these children is affecting their absenteeism and their ability to excel academically in school,” Hanks said.

The threat of gun violence in communities has also been shown to affect students’ ability to perform well in school. A 2018 study found that even indirect exposure to firearm-related violence can heavily impact students’ performance on standardized testing.

Miriam Miller, policy director for the Department of Public Health, said they have been given $12 million in bond funding to combat community gun violence across the state. However, the money has not yet been released to their department.

Aside from social determinants, the council discussed the creation of new academic programs targeted at minority students.

In what the state Department of Education refers to as the “achievement gap,” Bristol and New London saw the lowest rates of college readiness for Black students in contrast to their middle to high range rates for white students.

Statewide data shows Latino students from Waterbury are struggling the most academically compared to Latino students in other school districts. Latino students in Hartford Public Schools are ranked second lowest.

Connecticut state colleges and universities are exploring multiple academic initiatives to bolster student success both before and after they get to college, said Stephen Hegedus, president of the Connecticut Chapter of the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education.

“Many of our colleges and universities are prioritizing minority teacher recruitment and retention initiatives,” said Hegedus, who is also the dean of education at Southern Connecticut State University. “Some of these include ‘high school to college’ plans for building early college credit as well as creating successful transfer pathways from community colleges to four year institutions.”

A 2019 study found that Black students assigned to at least one Black teacher during their early education were 6 percentage points more likely to enroll in higher education.

Research shows students of color perform better with racially diverse educators. Teachers of color hold Black and brown students to higher standards and are less likely to perceive them as merely disruptive or inattentive, several studies show.

Charlene Russell-Tucker, the state’s education commissioner, highlighted the department’s plans to hire teachers from more diverse backgrounds.

“We’ve talked about supporting our districts to make sure that we can recruit and retain a diverse workforce with scholarship grants – we’re still working to figure out how to put those into place with higher education as part of that,” Russell-Tucker said.

The next meeting of the Interagency Council for Ending the Achievement Gap is scheduled for Sept. 19.

This story was originally published on July 20, 2023 by Connecticut Public.