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Closing the achievement gap for Birmingham’s black students

Families have migrated to the suburbs for generations in search of safer communities and better education, and high-performing districts like Birmingham Public Schools have seen a steady increase of black students as a result. But those students face a white achievement gap that may be holding them back.

I remember being about 5 years old and having to wake up extra early every morning. My mom and dad would load my brother and me into our green minivan and drive us from our home in northwest Detroit to our grandmother’s house in Southfield, where we’d eat breakfast before she took us to school.

We did this same routine for years before we officially moved into the Birmingham Public Schools district. My parents wanted my brother and me to have a better education, and suburban schools like BPS have long been synonymous with being high-performing.

My story of migration is a familiar one for black Detroiters. In the early ’80s, Southfield was mostly white, but over the years the city has seen its black population skyrocket. It grew to 54 percent by the 2000 census and to 70 percent in 2010. The Southfield Public Schools district has mirrored that change, with a black student now around 94 percent.

“From when I came in in 1982, my elementary school and even middle school looked pretty similar to Berkshire, and the feeder elementary schools here, demographically,” says Jason Clinkscale, who attended public schools in Southfield. He is now principal of Berkshire Middle School in Birmingham, the first black principal to hold that position. “By the time I had left Southfield Public Schools in 1991, there was a definite change demographically to a much higher percentage of African-American students. We started out being the minority, below 50 percent. We were definitely well into the majority, mid 80s, as far as percentage of African-American students in the school district.”

Though not quite as rapid as Southfield in the last decade, BPS is starting to see its own increase. Right now, black students account for almost 12 percent of the district, which has steadily increased from just over 6 percent during the 2002-03 school year, according to Michigan’s Center for Educational Performance and Information. Clinkscale’s school in particular has seen a 10 percent increase in black students over the past 14 years.

Denine Johnson is a BPS parent with two daughters at Groves High School, one of two high schools in the district. She says the district’s reputation is what drew her to enroll her kids here.

“It was the education that I knew they would provide for my children,” Johnson says. “Looking at the graduation rates, the scoring of the children as far as standardized testing is what drew me as a parent.”

BPS’s reputation, diversity and widespread district lines makes it appealing to parents and families of all races. But for black students, numbers show that enrolling in higher performing districts like BPS is only the beginning of a long road to graduation.

Identifying the gap …

Even though black students in Birmingham only account for less than a quarter of the district’s population, they are disproportionately represented in their classes. Black youth make up the majority of those enrolled in classes for students who need “additional assistance.” On the other end, they are underrepresented in the district’s accelerated or Advanced Placement classes.

When it comes to standardized testing, students take the Michigan Student Test of Educational Progress in grades 3-8. Looking at black eighth graders in BPS who took the M-STEP in the 2014-15 school year, 46 percent tested “proficient” in mathematics, 52 percent in English language arts and 29 percent in social studies. Compare that to their white classmates, who tested over 75 percent “proficient” in both math and English language arts, and 55 percent in social studies.

“When we get into the standardized assessment data, such as now the M-STEP, as well as NWEA (Northwest Evaluation Association, a nonprofit that assesses academic progress in students), we see that African-American students are being outperformed by their white classmates,” Clinkscale says. “So this would be typical to what you would see in schools across the country. It’s very similar here in Birmingham.”

The disparity is clear: Students who transfer into the district from lower-performing schools and are unable to keep up, as well as students from lower-income households or whose parents who have limited academic achievement.

“Maybe (transfer students) came in sixth grade, or maybe they came later in elementary school,” Clinkscale says. “Or at the high school, they’ll say, ‘Well these aren’t our students, they just came freshman year into the district.’ My answer is, regardless of when they came, they are our students and we still owe them our best practices, all of our attention and the appropriate resources to remedy the issue.”

BPS has been working to tackle the district’s achievement gap for almost a decade. It’s all the more important to address with the district’s growing black population.

“I believe the achievement gap should be put in historical context,” Clinkscale says. “This problem is definitely not anything new, it’s not anything unique to Birmingham. This is at the county level, this is at the state level, the national level and even internationally. There seems to be these unfortunate representations where people are not having the same access and same opportunity.”

… and closing that gap

The Birmingham Public Schools name comes with a reputation similar to that of its namesake city. Just under five square miles, Birmingham is one of Detroit’s wealthiest – and whitest – suburbs: 92 percent white with a median household income of $107,000, the census notes, and a downtown known for upscale shopping and gourmet dining.

While the district does pull students from the city of Birmingham, BPS’s boundaries extend into more diverse– racially and economically – communities nearby, including West Bloomfield, Bloomfield Township, Troy, Franklin and the northern part of Southfield. And while only about 7 percent of BPS students are categorized as “economically disadvantaged,” Clinkscale says these students also tend to perform lower on standardized tests.

With this in mind, BPS seeks to close the achievement gap by closely involving its families, with some initiatives led by the district and others led by parents.

Take for example the Birmingham African American Family Network, which is one way the district fosters a connection between parents, students, educators and administrators – and discusses the issues black students face in the district.

Johnson’s daughters were raised in the district, but she thinks the BAAFN is ideal for families new to the district. “If they’re coming from a district that’s majority black and coming into BPS, that group is great for them to know what to expect and the resources available to them,” she says.

Not only does the network discuss academic issues during meetings, but it also covers the social repercussions black students face. In a district as diverse as BPS (or, really, any metro Detroit school district with changing demographics), there are bound to be kids from families with different worldviews.

Berkshire parent Nichole Pardo turned to the BAAFN meeting to share an incident her son had with a white student at his school.

“This white student came up to the water fountain and said ‘whites first,’” Pardo says. “The next morning, I emailed the principal and, by the time I hit send, he had already responded. And this was a Saturday at like noon.”

Pardo’s son, who is half Mexican and Cuban, also faced discrimination when a student voiced an opinion about Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump’s “wall” and how the child’s people will be on the other side.

“I told him (the other student is) clearly getting this from home, so don’t be too hard on him. Just like you get the polar opposite about civil rights advocacy, racial equality and human equality, he’s getting the opposite, so you cannot blame him,” Pardo says. “I’m trying to make these teachable moments.”

In addition to the BAAFN, the district also introduced the Birmingham Achievement Gap Committee around the same time, which was founded by a group of educators in the district – including Clinkscale – to establish policy establish policy for improvement.

Through these two efforts, the district formed the Saturday School, a free program that gives extra tutoring help from National Honor Society students at the high school level and education students from Oakland University. Clinkscale says from what he’s seen, the school seems to help students, measured by indicators such as overall grades, standardized test scores and attitudes toward school.

Even with the achievement gap, Birmingham Public Schools is still getting students through and even onto college. The district maintains a graduation rate of over 95 percent, and black students go onto college within six months of graduating at almost a 77 percent rate.

“It’s not just academic help that we do, but we also try to really get at that attitude gap that exists, as well. Making sure that kids find value and relevancy in school,” Clinkscale says. “Those are things that don’t necessarily show up in a quantifiable way, but we certainly can qualify, and that’s helpful in the work that we do – as well as recognizing the impact we’re having in the kids’ lives.”

ALANA WALKER IS ASSOCIATE EDITOR OF BLAC DETROIT.

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