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Tuesday, February 27, 2024

Gainesville community shares concerns about opportunity gaps in Alachua County schools

Parents, educators, students see a divide in educational opportunities

Students attending a STEAM Magnet Program open house event at Metcalfe Elementary on Wednesday, Jan. 31, 2024.
Students attending a STEAM Magnet Program open house event at Metcalfe Elementary on Wednesday, Jan. 31, 2024.

Xiomara Arroyo has gone through the schooling process in Alachua County with her three children, from experiencing their first day of kindergarten to making their way into UF and fulfilling their aspirations. 

The 48-year-old mother has had a tumultuous relationship with Alachua County Public Schools.

Arroyo believes the programs offered at ACPS have been beneficial to the success of her children, but after moving from East to west Gainesville for her son’s education, there was a noticeable difference between resource opportunities within schools, she said. 

“He was receiving C's and D's in this older school, and when he went to the other schools, he improved to A's and B's,” she said.

Florida’s graduation rates for the 2022-2023 school year soared with a record high of 88%. Alachua County’s rates, which include both public and charter high schools, fell to 84.2%, lower than its rates the last five years.

Educators, students and parents wonder what contributes to underperformance and what is being done to address it. 

Kevin Berry, ACPS director of curriculum, said he’s interested in analyzing the different data sets between public and charter schools with the county’s traditional public school graduation rate standing at 90.3%.

Berry said the school system is in the process of attributing the data to new initiatives being started, like new science material for grades K-12 and student-and-parent involvement programs, like Amplified Student Voice Coalition

Berry said the school system’s goal is to collect data regularly throughout the school year instead of waiting for rates to come out at the end of the year. 

“That helps us to get more of an understanding of the story behind the students,” he said.

Berry said the school system is aware of the gap between Black students and other subgroups and is trying to build a consensus around optimal ways to address the problem.

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The system is trying to get families involved through a new initiative called “family focus group sessions,” he said. 

The next session will take place at Stephen Foster Elementary Feb. 13 at 6 p.m. It’s open to any parent from any school, Berry said. The sessions allow parents and students to interact with faculty and voice concerns, weak points and effective strategies. 

Charter schools have flexibility in choosing their curriculum, Berry said. ACPS offers support to charters but doesn't directly impact the instruction, which is administered by a separate governing board.

“Here are some public schools that actually exceed the state, but that means we really need to change the way we support our other schools,” he said.

Berry said it’s crucial to find out what's happening with students and “dig a little bit deeper.”

Brooke Peterson, a 19-year-old UF geography junior and Buchholz High School alumna, didn't start school in Florida until ninth grade.

Peterson said after moving from upstate New York to Gainesville her freshman year of high school, she noticed differences between both school systems.

“A lot of things were definitely more lax than New York’s education system,” Peterson said. “There weren't as many standardized tests.”

Peterson felt lucky she was self-motivated and surrounded by ambitious friends who inspired her to achieve more, she said.

“I felt supported, but also, if you didn't put yourself out there and want certain opportunities, no one was going to help you,” she said.  

Peterson said there was a clear difference between groups of students taking AP courses and students enrolled in honors courses or general education curriculum. 

Peterson said she also felt she had knowledge gaps in topics like climate change. She kept up with New York’s efforts to implement climate change into its curriculum, which led her to question efforts in Florida.

African American studies was another topic she wasn’t familiar with, she said. 

“My education in that realm kind of just stops at the civil rights movement,” she said. “What happens next? How does the culture evolve?”

Chris Redding, a UF education associate professor, believes it's important to move away from framing around the achievement gap and instead focus on the opportunity gap, he said.

“Trying to drill down into what the differences are in broader opportunity structures that lead to those patterns in the first place,” he said.

Redding said early warning factors can be a way to create an understanding of signs likely leading to poor performance and dropping out.  

Redding said it’s also important to question whether larger gaps are created from a college town population taking over the data; the gap data between college towns and other cities can vary by a lot. 

A college town’s public schools receive enrollment from the children of university faculty and families who’ve moved to town for the university. It also receives enrollment from children who have grown up in under-resourced communities in the city, he said. 

Chris Curran, a UF associate professor of educational leadership and policy and director of the Education Policy Research Center, believes in looking beyond schooling and into home life. 

Curran said understanding these issues stem beyond schooling and can be attributed to socioeconomic factors. Rather than an achievement gap, which implies the success of some groups, it can be more helpful to use an opportunity gap, which implies unequal access to resources. 

“That [opportunity gap] terminology gets used to sort of help emphasize that these differences aren't something that's inherent to the group or something that is the fault of the group, but rather, it is a reflection of differential opportunity,” he said. 

Curran said before looking directly at school performance and effort, it’s important to look at socioeconomic differences and then relate it back to school to find patterns.

“Students are zoned to particular schools based on where they live,” he said. “The schools may have differential resources.”

Curran also agrees with Redding on Alachua County’s unique student body. 

Wider disparities can be seen between people affiliated with the university and other people. There are different opportunities or different supports outside of school that may not be quite the same if you were in a community that didn't have a university, he said. 

These differences could be observed through the perspective of Ripley Sowers, a 19-year-old UF psychology junior and graduate from the IB Program at Eastside High School. Sowers pointed out distinct experiences between the peers in her program and the students enrolled in standardized curriculum.

She said she’s grateful for her experience with IB but felt it also had blurred the deep-rooted issues at Eastside.

Sowers said socioeconomic differences were clear, but she felt the issue was not addressed even though IB promoted ideas of inclusivity and unity.

“We were learning in an environment where other people were being underprivileged and not given the same opportunity to speak about their experiences, which was hard,” she said.

With the many causes of education gaps, Berry said he believes numbers can't tell a story without the picture.

“Kids aren't numbers,” he said. “Behind those numbers is a student and their experience with academics but also with things that are happening in their lives outside of curriculum and instruction.”

Contact Nicole Beltran at nbeltran@alligator.org. Follow her on X @nicolebeltg.

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Nicole Beltran

Nicole Beltran is a second-year journalism and economics major, and she's the caimán desk editor this semester. In her free time, she enjoys reading, journaling, and watching musicals.


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