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Narrowing the gap

This is the final installment in a series of articles focusing on the 50th anniversary of the Brown v. Board of Education school desegregation decision. The complete series is catalogued at http://wvgazette.com/section/Series/Brown+v.+Board+of+Education/.


Betty Spencer keeps a log of student grades on her desk at Dunbar Intermediate School.

The handwritten chart lists the names of more than 320 children and their grades in a half-dozen subjects.

A red dot marks every grade below a C. There are a lot of red dots. Spencer doesn’t like red dots.

But this is how Spencer, a principal for 30 years, keeps track of her charges. This is how she makes sure students don’t fall behind.

Children with red dots get extra help from tutors and reading specialists; their parents get phone calls. Teachers and counselors — and Spencer — stay on top of them.

“It’s all tracking and monitoring,” Spencer said. “If you don’t, then kids get lost in the cracks. You don’t want to lose anyone.”

African-American students make up about a third of Dunbar Intermediate’s enrollment. They’re achieving at higher levels than most black children in West Virginia.

Dunbar Intermediate has one of the smallest racial achievement gaps in the state, according to test data from the state Department of Education.

It’s schools like Dunbar Intermediate that state leaders want to replicate.

In March, legislators passed a new law that will establish as many as 30 “professional development” schools in 10 counties across the state.

The schools will focus on boosting the achievement of minority and low-income students.

Teachers will receive extensive training. They must show a commitment to minority children. Those who don’t will be shown the door after a year.

In Kanawha County, state officials have mentioned Stonewall Jackson Middle School and Glenwood Elementary School as possible sites for the pilot program.

“We want people who are creative, innovative and determined,” said Pat Kusimo, who co-chairs Gov. Bob Wise’s Minority Students’ Strategy Council. “We want people with passion.”

People such as Betty Spencer.

“They really work out there,” said Kanawha County Assistant Superintendent Leonard Allen, who oversees elementary schools. “They really know their kids. They make sure they learn.”

Not satisfied

until there’s no gap

Fifty years after the Supreme Court’s landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision that outlawed state-sponsored school segregation, schools across the nation are struggling to close the achievement gap between white and black students.

West Virginia has made black student achievement a priority.

Last year, Gov. Bob Wise established a committee to examine the issue and make recommendations. The Legislature supported the professional development school initiative. And earlier this month, state schools Superintendent David Stewart announced he was creating a new assistant superintendent job at the Department of Education to oversee the pilot school project and school improvement.

West Virginia school leaders will have a leg up on other states: The Mountain State already has one of the smallest racial achievement gaps in the nation, according to a study released last week.

The report, sponsored by Washington-based Education Trust, found:

s West Virginia has one of the smallest white-black gaps among fourth-graders when it comes to reading.

s West Virginia also has the smallest white-black gap among eighth-graders who took a national math exam.

West Virginia education leaders acknowledge other states have much wider achievement gaps.

But they say they won’t be satisfied until there’s no gap at all.

They note that West Virginia students’ test scores, as a whole, are slightly below the national average. So if white students’ scores are low, there’s no cause for celebration if black students are just a few points behind, school leaders say.

Members of the governor’s council spent several months studying the achievement of minority and low-income students in West Virginia schools.

They reached two conclusions: Teachers had low expectations for African-American students. Parental and community involvement in schools also was low.

In the coming months, council members plan to help counties form local groups to monitor and boost minority student achievement.

They plan to share achievement data with local community leaders.

Kanawha County already has such a group — Maximizing African-American Achievement in Kanawha County. Group leaders have been meeting with Kanawha school administrators for several years.

Kanawha County black students’ test scores have increased slightly during that time. Also, more African-American students have been placed in gifted programs. Fewer are winding up in special education classes for children with behavior disorders and mental impairments.

“You need a group committed to this for the long term,” Kusimo said. “You need a nucleus that understands the issues deeply.”

‘Best kept secret

in West Virginia’

At Dunbar Intermediate, students shuffle in and out of Spencer’s office. They come when they’re in trouble. But they also stop by to show off paintings or reports that fetched good grades.

Spencer hands each student a “caught you doing something good” pencil.

At the school, there’s also a “wall of fame” for students who participate in a reading program. And there’s a student-of-the-month list with more than two dozen names. Students must show good behavior to make the list.

“You try to make them feel as good as they possibly can,” said Linda Lucci, a reading specialist at Dunbar.

Dunbar Intermediate students also have African-American role models in the classroom. The school has a diverse staff — six black teachers and two black aides.

A third of Kanawha County schools have no black employees.

Spencer grew up in segregated schools. She remembers receiving textbooks marked “colored-use only.”

She said doesn’t give black students special treatment, though. She said it’s important to have high expectations for all students.

“We have a caring feeling for all our students,” Spencer said. “We’re the best-kept secret in West Virginia.”

To contact staff writer Eric Eyre, use e-mail or call 348-4869.


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