LAST OF THREE PARTS

Damian Ochoa Obregon and his math teacher at Southern High School in Durham discuss his mistaken exclusion from a more advanced math class.

5 ways to help bright low-income students excel

For the first three weeks of this semester, ninth-grader Damian Ochoa Obregon sat in a math class he had passed last year.

He didn’t understand why – he’s a gifted student who earned a C in Math 1, a high-school level course, at Durham County’s Neal Middle School. But he figured Southern High School in Durham must have had some reason for putting him in the same class again.

It turns out his counselor had simply scheduled Damian for the math class most students take during their freshman year at this high-poverty school. It was only when his mother, who struggles with English, met with teachers to review his progress that the mistake was revealed. Damian, 14, was moved to Math 2, but he had already missed an opportunity.

“He could have handled a more rigorous course, an honors class, but we caught him too late,” said Raymond Robinson, his Math 2 teacher.

It would be easy to blame Damian’s counselor, but that counselor is responsible for 415 freshmen, well above the national recommendation of no more than 250.

Huge caseloads for counselors are one of the reasons high-achieving students from low-income households get overlooked in North Carolina’s schools. An investigation by The News & Observer and The Charlotte Observer reveals that thousands of low-income children who score at the highest level on end-of-grade tests aren’t getting picked for advanced classes – and that they are excluded at a far higher rate than their more affluent classmates who earn the same scores.

Damian Ochoa Obregon, a ninth-grader at Southern High School in Durham, studies for an environmental science test. He says he does better when teachers push him to do harder work.

The trend is consistent but defies simple explanation. Experts, educators and parents cite a range of causes: Educators can unwittingly stereotype low-income and minority students as low achievers. School assignments can leave high achievers with few academic peers or advanced classes. Testing and screening consistently favors higher-income, white and Asian students. Overworked faculty must sometimes fill gaps for families that lack ability to advocate for their children. And a range of costly private help is available to affluent families whose children compete for recognition and opportunities.

Opening doors to opportunity will likely require a mix of public spending, private investment and policy change. Here are five possibilities:

* * *

#1 Hire more school counselors

Counselors play a critical role for students, mapping their route through school. This guidance is especially important for students who come from homes where English is not spoken or those whose parents’ education ended with high school.

Teens, regardless of their family background, can’t always be relied on to push for classes that may bring harder work and more risk. Damian Ochoa, for instance, describes himself as lazy but says his favorite teachers have been those who make him work hard.

“If I do too good, they’ll put me in hard classes with more homework,” he said. “But I think I can do more.”

Tracking high achievers in middle and high school requires a juggling act. Schedules are set in spring, before students have taken year-end exams. Ideally, educators say, someone checks again over the summer to see if a top score in the previous grade merits a more advanced course in August.

The counselor caseload at Southern High School in Durham isn’t a fluke. In North Carolina, public schools average almost 400 students per counselor, and the load is much higher at many schools.

The state pays for counselors based on a district’s enrollment. When the American School Counselor Association tracked state ratios in 2013-14, North Carolina’s level of 391 students per counselor was below the national average of 491 and comparable to the neighboring states of South Carolina, Virginia and Tennessee. Only three states fell below the recommended 250, and 11 averaged more than 500 students per counselor.

Wake County has one counselor for every 393 high-school students, one counselor for every 372 middle-schoolers and one for every 630 in elementary school.

In Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, elementary schools don’t get a second counselor until enrollment tops 725 students. The district has 38 elementary schools, many with very high poverty levels, that have between 500 and 724 students, which means each counselor serves more than 500 students.

Charlotte-Mecklenburg and Wake schools have both turned to county commissioners to reduce caseloads further.

Wake is seeking nearly $10 million this year to start a three-year plan to bring the number of counselors and social workers up to recommended levels. It is part of a larger budget request that appears likely to be reduced substantially by county commissioners.

* * *

#2 Fill gifted classes with high achievers

Many school districts have strict cutoffs for entrance into gifted classes, where veteran teachers challenge high-performing students with advanced material. Typically, this requires top-level scores on aptitude and achievement tests and sometimes includes teacher recommendations.

In some schools, there may be a small number of students who meet those requirements. Why not fill empty seats in the classes with high-achieving students who fell just short of the gifted cutoff?

A study of gifted programs in Florida found that this approach delivered big benefits.

Laura Giuliano and David Card studied the Broward County school system to determine who was placed in gifted classes and how. Their most powerful finding was a coattail effect.

To report this series, The News & Observer acquired seven years of student-level data for the state's 115 school districts and charter schools from the state Department of Public Instruction. Each year, it includes the end-of-grade scores for nearly 700,000 North Carolina elementary and middle-school students and similar data for roughly 455,000 high school students.

This is the same data used by DPI to produce its annual report cards - snapshots about the performance of schools. Our analysis went deeper to compare the experiences of high-scoring students from low-income households with those of their higher-income classmates.

We don't know who the students are. But unique ID numbers allowed us to track the students from year to year and to follow how schools assign those students from class to class.

We found racial disparities among high-scoring students: Among more affluent students, Asians are more likely to be placed in rigorous classes, while black and Hispanic students are less likely. Whites are placed at a rate equal to the state average.

We focused on low-income students, measured by those who receive free or reduced-price lunches. Year in and year out, a smaller proportion of low-income third graders who score at the highest level on end-of-grade tests get on the track of advanced courses compared to their more affluent classmates. And more of these students slip through the cracks as the years go by.

We focused on math for several reasons: it is sequential, so students who fall behind find it difficult to catch up; measuring math skills is less subjective than areas such as reading and social sciences; and as a student progresses, math scores help determine enrollment in high school classes such as chemistry, biology and physics.

These end-of-grade tests measure achievement and start in the third grade, when students take their first state reading and math exams. Many school districts use other measures, such as aptitude tests and teacher screenings, to decide admission to gifted programs. Some also consider the end-of-grade scores.

The end-of-grade tests aren't a perfect measure, but they're important enough that North Carolina lawmakers and education officials have long used them to shape public policy and spending decisions. We were not able to obtain the results of aptitude tests.

291Higher-income fourth-graders labeled gifted in Wake County in 2015 with average end-of-grade math scores
228Lower-income fourth graders left out of gifted classes in Wake County in 2015 with superior end-of-grade math scores
$675 to $1,200Cost of a private evaluation that can be used to admit a child to gifted classes
25Percentage of Wake's higher-income fourth graders labeled gifted in 2015
3Percentage of Wake's lower-income fourth graders labeled gifted in 2015
351Number of low-income 2015 Guilford graduates who were labeled gifted in middle school
179Number of low-income 2015 Wake graduates who were labeled gifted in middle school

North Carolina's education system has many independent pieces, and often it's not clear just who's in charge.

The General Assembly allocates the money for local schools and writes education law. The State Board of Education sets policy. The N.C. Department of Public Instruction implements these laws and policies. And each of the state's 115 school districts has an elected board, which hires a superintendent to run the schools.

In fact, the state Board of Education and the state Superintendent of Public Instruction are squaring off in court to determine just who is in control of the state's education department. This action comes after legislators passed a new law giving more hiring clout to new Superintendent Mark Johnson.

When it comes to programs to push and support gifted students, state law lets local school boards set policy on how to choose children for the programs.

The General Assembly gives each district a gifted supplement tied to the district's enrollment. Many districts supplement that money with local contributions.

There are 115 school districts in North Carolina and 115 different policies on gifted programs, known in academic jargon as AIG, for Academically and Intellectually Gifted.

The policies differ on how students are identified, what services are offered, and how much money each district spends in addition to a contribution from the state based on the district's enrollment.

Most districts administer national tests for aptitude (the most common is called CogAT) and achievement (a common one is the Iowa Test of Basic Skills.) Here's how local districts make their decisions:

Wake County
  • All third graders take the CogAT aptitude test. The district has a complicated chart showing five paths into the gifted program, but in essence it requires students need to score 95% or higher on both aptitude and achievement tests. Unlike other districts, the policy does not contain teacher evaluations or other subjective judgments.
Durham
  • All second graders take the CogAT. Students are automatically identified as gifted with a score of 97% or higher.
  • Students can enter if they fit two of the following three criteria: an aptitude test of 90% or higher; an achievement test of 90% or higher; a 90 average in the classroom or the highest score on an end-of-grade test.
  • State funding: $1.8 million District: $4.3 million
Chapel Hill-Carrboro
  • All third graders take the CogAT.
  • To be labeled gifted, students must score 90 percent or higher on an aptitude test; score 95 percent or higher on an achievement test, which includes the state end-of-grade test; and have a successful interview, teacher evaluation, or portfolio of qualifying supporting evidence. Chapel Hill also accepts evaluations from private psychologists.
  • State funding: $630,000 District: $1.1 million
Orange County
  • All third graders take the CogAT. Students scoring 95 percent or higher on an aptitude test qualify.
  • Students scoring 95 percent or higher on an achievement test qualify if they also perform well on a teacher-administered screening.
  • State funding: $650,000 District: $250,000
Johnston County
  • All third graders take the CogAT unless parents opt out.
  • A panel of school and central office representatives choose students based on some, but not necessarily all, of the following factors: 90 percent or higher on CogAT; 90 percent or higher on an achievement test, including the state end-of-grade tests; teacher or parent observations; the student's overall performance.
  • State funding: $1.8 million District: $161,000
Decision-makers

State Superintendent Mark Johnson is North Carolina's top education official. Reach him at mark.johnson@dpi.nc.gov or 919-807-3430.

The state Senate’s education committee and its education appropriations committee are chaired by Chad Barefoot, R-Wake/Franklin; David Curtis, R-Gaston/Iredell/Lincoln; and Michael Lee, R-New Hanover.

The House K-12 education committee is chaired by Craig Horn, R-Union; Linda Johnson, R-Cabarrus; Debra Conrad, R-Forsyth; and Jeffrey Elmore, R-Alleghany/Wilkes.

The House education appropriations committee is chaired by John Fraley, R-Iredell; Hugh Blackwell, R-Burke; Pat Hurley, R-Randolph; Elmore and Horn.

Find contact information and look up your representatives at http://ncga.state.nc.us/

Advocacy and information

The North Carolina Association for the Gifted and Talented, www.ncagt.org or 910-326-8463, offers information about services for gifted students. The national conference will be in Charlotte in November and will include discussion of how to better serve low-income and other underrepresented students.

The Public School Forum of North Carolina, www.ncforum.org or 919-781-6833, monitors statewide issues and recently released a report on expanding opportunities for low-income and minority students.

Direct support

Young Eisner Scholars, or YES, provides intensive support for high-potential students of poverty, from middle school through college graduation. The group is active in Los Angeles, New York, Chicago and Watauga County, N.C. www.yesscholars.org or in Watauga County, Jhicks@yesscholars.org.

The Wake Ed Partnership supports Wake County teachers with innovation grants, training in science and math instruction and tutors for young students struggling to learn to read. http://www.wakeed.org or 919-821-7609

Gen-One Charlotte is a nonprofit created by two CMS teachers to provide college-prep support for high-scoring students from low-income homes. It is active only at Eastway Middle School but hopes to serve as a pilot for expansion. www.genonecharlotte.org, genoneclt@gmail.com or 980-263-9043.

The Daniel Center for Math and Science is a Raleigh nonprofit center that provides summer programs and after-school tutoring for low-income elementary and middle school students. www.danielcenter.org, info@danielcenter.org or 919-828-6443.

The Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools Foundation is raising money to provide cultural proficiency training for all CMS teachers: https://cms-foundation.org/, 980-343-0399 or info@cms-foundation.org.

 Ann Doss Helms has been The Charlotte Observer's education reporter since 2002. She won first place in the North Carolina Press Association's education reporting category in 2017, 2016, 2014 and 2013. In 2015, she won the Associated Press Senator Sam Open Government Award for reporting on charter school salaries. She worked for the Macon (Ga.) Telegraph & News before coming to the Observer in 1987.
 Joseph Neff, who joined The News & Observer in 1992, has written extensively about criminal justice and health care. He was part of a team whose reporting on nonprofit hospitals won the ASNE, Loeb, Sigma Delta Chi and Robert F. Kennedy awards and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. Neff exposed the misconduct of former Durham District Attorney Mike Nifong in the Duke lacrosse case and won the Sigma Delta Chi award for his reporting on Blackwater, the former military contractor based in northeastern North Carolina. Before his journalism career, Neff taught beekeeping as a Peace Corps volunteer in west Africa.
 David Raynor also joined The N&O in 1992. As the newsroom's database editor, he is responsible for acquiring, analyzing and maintaining public records. He has worked on many award-winning projects, including stories about the construction industry cheating on taxes by misclassifying workers, huge profits at North Carolina's nonprofit hospitals, courts' lenient treatment of serial and serious speeders, hundreds of millions of dollars wasted in the state's mental health system, and deaths in day cares.
 

Gifted students were selected through IQ tests. The school system required a full classroom even if there was only one child labeled gifted in the grade. Teachers used end-of-grade scores to fill the remaining slots. Those high-achieving students who filled the empty seats benefited greatly from learning among smart students from a highly qualified teacher. Poor and minority students posted the biggest gains in math and reading.

“Their performance went way, way up,” said Giuliano, an economist at the University of Miami. “If there were 20 students in the class, we found huge effects for the kids ranked 15 to 20.”

This could be most useful in high-poverty schools with few students at the gifted threshold and many who fall just short, said Linda Robinson, a gifted teacher in Wake County and past president of the N.C. Association for the Gifted and Talented.

“There are students who need something above the standard instruction in our school,” Robinson said. “They need to be pushed by others.”

Wake officials repeatedly have noted that the state doesn’t provide enough funding for teachers to cover the gifted students already identified. But Wake matches only a quarter of the state’s contribution to gifted programs; Durham puts in more than twice what it gets from the state, and Chapel Hill-Carrboro roughly doubles the state money.

* * *

#3 Hire more teachers of color

When James Ford was a history teacher at Charlotte’s Garinger High, he started by telling his students the game was rigged against them. While some of them were brilliant, almost all were black, brown and poor.

Their families’ poverty was shaped by a history of systemic racism, he told them. And their skin color meant even the best-intentioned educators and employers might overlook their potential.

James Ford, a former Garinger High teacher and North Carolina teacher of the year, now works for the Public School Forum of North Carolina.

Now Ford is program director for the Public School Forum of North Carolina, which has identified unconscious bias and lack of advanced opportunities for minority and low-income students as some of the biggest challenges facing public education. The forum is pushing for better recruitment of teachers of color, more culturally sensitive lessons and efforts to counteract biases that result in academic and disciplinary disparities.

This year 80 percent of North Carolina’s public school teachers are white, compared with only 49 percent of students. In Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, where white enrollment is only 29 percent, 66 percent of teachers are white. Wake County’s teaching force is 82 percent white, compared with a student body that is 48 percent white.

The N&O/Observer investigation focused on low-income students, rather than race. But some of the same trends show up for black and Hispanic students – and African American parents say their children face stereotypes even if they’re from higher-income homes.

In Charlotte, a group of leaders that spent the last two years studying opportunity and upward mobility has tapped Ford to lead the next step, which includes confronting the role of race in education.

Shelagh Gallagher, a Charlotte-based expert in gifted education, says recruiting more teachers of color to teach the brightest students would open doors to students who are currently overlooked or not being challenged.

Wake County schools have provided “cultural proficiency” training to help the system’s predominantly white work force to understand the experiences of an increasingly diverse student population, and how race and racism operate in society and education.

The training is supposed to help ensure that teachers have high expectations for all students while making them aware of how students’ culture may influence behavior.

* * *

#4 Pay for extra opportunities when parents can’t

For middle-class and wealthy students, learning doesn’t stop when school is out. For kids whose parents can’t afford summer camps and after-school programs, philanthropists, businesses and nonprofit groups often step in.

For instance, the Charlotte-based nonprofit Digi-Bridge uses corporate donations to provide Saturday science, math and technology sessions at no cost to students in two high-poverty CMS schools and one community center. Those sessions, which cost $25 for paying students, provide extra enrichment for high-scoring students at schools such as Ashley Park, which has to focus most of its efforts on helping low-scoring students catch up.

In Raleigh, the nonprofit Daniel Center provides summer and after-school math, science and technology enrichment for low-income students.

High-priced summer programs often offer financial aid. Duke University’s Talent Identification Program, for instance, offers income-based aid for three-week camps that cost more than $4,000. But financial aid alone isn’t sufficient, said Matthew Makel, TIP’s research director. The program has been evaluating the effectiveness of supporting students by email, online mentoring or face-to-face contact.

“Providing opportunities is not enough,” Makel said. “We need to establish a relationship and trust with the families so they can make the most opportunity out of this.”

* * *

#5 Make better use of student data

For 25 years, Janet Johnson has dissected educational data in North Carolina. An analyst at Edstar Analytics, a Durham consulting firm, she has been hired by school districts, the state and private foundations to analyze and interpret education data.

She’s not getting close to working herself out of a job.

That’s because, for the most part, educators can’t access data to make their own decisions: “The data is not available in a way to make it easy for people to use,” Johnson said.

Janet Johnson is chief executive officer of Edstar Analytics in Research Triangle Park.

Data is collected at the local level and flows up, from the school to the district headquarters, from there to state offices in Raleigh. For the most part, the data does not flow back down to teachers and administrators at the local level, Johnson said.

There are exceptions, such as the state’s annual report cards, Johnson said, but those provide only basic statistics. The state’s PowerSchool program allows parents, teachers and principals to track an individual student’s progress.

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Superintendent Ann Clark says the key is individual tracking. In high schools, for instance, Charlotte-Mecklenburg now has counselors reviewing each student’s transcript every year to make sure the student is getting appropriate classes to meet his or her goals, whether that’s earning a diploma or building up advanced credits to be competitive for a top university.

Johnson said the most useful data tool available to teachers is the assessment system EVAAS, a computer program owned by SAS, the Cary-based software and analytic giant. For 10 years, the state has hired SAS to provide EVAAS to every teacher and principal.

Principals and administrators can use EVAAS to measure the effect of a new program or intervention on groups of students, she said.

Teachers can use EVAAS to help decide when a student is ready to take Math 1, the first high school math class, and whether a student needs extra support to succeed. Johnson believes EVAAS is underused: she said she has conducted several training sessions in the past two years where she found administrators and teachers who had never logged into the program.

There is a hunger for more data-based analysis.

When the N&O and the Observer showed the results of their data analysis to teachers, principals, elected officials and administrators around the state, a common question popped up: Where did you get this data and who did the analysis?

The Department of Public Instruction gave the data to The N&O, where database editor David Raynor performed the analysis.

Joseph Neff: 919-829-4516, @josephcneff

Ann Doss Helms: 704-358-5033, @anndosshelms

 
 

The series

Sunday: High hurdles for poor

Monday: Fighting for a chance

Today: New policies that could help

Get involved

Decision-makers

State Superintendent Mark Johnson is North Carolina’s top education official. Reach him at mark.johnson@dpi.nc.gov or 919-807-3430.

The state Senate’s education committee and its education appropriations committee are chaired by Chad Barefoot, R-Wake/Franklin; David Curtis, R-Gaston/Iredell/Lincoln; and Michael Lee, R-New Hanover.

The House K-12 education committee is chaired by Craig Horn, R-Union; Linda Johnson, R-Cabarrus; Debra Conrad, R-Forsyth; and Jeffrey Elmore, R-Alleghany/Wilkes.

The House education appropriations committee is chaired by John Fraley, R-Iredell; Hugh Blackwell, R-Burke; Pat Hurley, R-Randolph; Elmore and Horn.

Find contact information and look up your representatives at http://ncga.state.nc.us/

Advocacy and information

The North Carolina Association for the Gifted and Talented, www.ncagt.org or 910-326-8463, offers information about services for gifted students. The national conference will be in Charlotte in November and will include discussion of how to better serve low-income and other underrepresented students.

The Public School Forum of North Carolina, www.ncforum.org or 919-781-6833, monitors statewide issues and recently released a report on expanding opportunities for low-income and minority students.

Direct support

Young Eisner Scholars, or YES, provides intensive support for high-potential students of poverty, from middle school through college graduation. The group is active in Los Angeles, New York, Chicago and Watauga County, N.C. www.yesscholars.org or in Watauga County, Jhicks@yesscholars.org.

The Wake Ed Partnership supports Wake County teachers with innovation grants, training in science and math instruction and tutors for young students struggling to learn to read. http://www.wakeed.org or 919-821-7609

Gen-One Charlotte is a nonprofit created by two CMS teachers to provide college-prep support for high-scoring students from low-income homes. It is active only at Eastway Middle School but hopes to serve as a pilot for expansion. www.genonecharlotte.org, genoneclt@gmail.com or 980-263-9043.

The Daniel Center for Math and Science is a Raleigh nonprofit center that provides summer programs and after-school tutoring for low-income elementary and middle school students. www.danielcenter.org, info@danielcenter.org or 919-828-6443.

The Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools Foundation is raising money to provide cultural proficiency training for all CMS teachers: https://cms-foundation.org/, 980-343-0399 or info@cms-foundation.org.