On the surface, Quail Run and Prairie Park elementary schools in Lawrence are similar.
Students' bicycles fill racks by the doors, U.S. flags flap in the breeze, and about 400 children romp on sun-soaked playgrounds at both schools.
But inside these buildings, academic performance of students in reading and math is at opposite ends of the spectrum.
More than 88 percent of Quail Run students tested this spring are considered by the state to be "proficient" in those two core subjects, while less than 57 percent of Prairie Park students reached that level of achievement.
How can such a chasm develop between two schools in the same district?
John Poggio, professor of education at Kansas University and author of standardized exams used in Kansas public schools, said the list of possibilities was long.
"It's the child. It's the family. It's the teachers. It's the building and the principal," he said. "We can take it up a level to the district. Is it funding? Allocation? Opportunity for change being equalized? They are all potential areas that can contribute to differences in performance."
The federal No Child Left Behind education reform act has added urgency to the task of understanding test-score gaps in the Lawrence district. Under the law, all schools are to have 100 percent of students proficient in math and reading by 2014.
All 15 of the Lawrence district's elementary schools hit test-score benchmarks for the first year of No Child Left Behind. Fourth-graders took the math test, while fifth-graders were given the reading assessment.
But keeping pace with reading and math test-score targets, which increase annually until 2014, will be especially difficult at Prairie Park, Kennedy, Schwegler, Cordley, New York and Broken Arrow elementary schools. Each had less than two-thirds of students rated proficient -- the middle of five performance categories -- on at least one of the tests.
|Listed below are the percentages of tested students who scored "proficient" or above for each school in the Lawrence district, along with the state's standards.
Academic challenges faced at those elementary schools began taking hold long before students enrolled in kindergarten, said Alexa Pochowski, assistant commissioner of the State Department of Education.
She said some students were put at a disadvantage because they had parents who were unable or unwilling to help them develop word and number awareness. They were thrown in with students who acquired reading and math skills prior to kindergarten, she said.
"We're already starting kids in kindergarten who are three or four years apart in terms of level of achievement," Pochowski said. "That is the biggest issue. We never catch them up."
Lawrence Supt. Randy Weseman said poverty was a key obstacle for children throughout their time in elementary school.
"It's what is called the ZIP-code theory," Weseman said.
He said Lawrence elementary schools with a high percentage of students in the federal free-and reduced-lunch program -- used by the government as a measure of poverty -- had a greater chance of scoring low on the math and reading exams than students at schools with more wealthy families.
For example, Quail Run had 95 percent of students proficient in math -- top in the district-- and 88.7 percent proficient in reading, the district's third highest. Only 9 percent of its students are in the federal lunch program.
Prairie Park had 54.5 percent of students proficient in math -- dead last in the district -- and 57.7 percent proficient in reading, next to last. But 32.7 percent of Prairie Park's students qualified for the government lunch subsidy.
"If you have fewer assets and more risk factors when you get there, you have less to work with," said Rich Minder, a Lawrence school board member.
Sandee Crowther, the Lawrence district's director of planning and program improvement, said the attitude of parents about school greatly influenced children.
"Do they encourage them?" she said. "Is there a value system for learning?"
Adults need to become more engaged in the education of their children, Pochowski said.
"A lot of parents may not have been very successful in school," she said. "They'd avoid a place they weren't successful."
Culture of achievement
Quail Run Principal Paulette Strong, who has worked in the Lawrence district for more than 15 years, said differences in test scores among elementary schools could be attributed, in part, to lack of cohesion in the way reading and math were taught in each school.
"In the past," she said, "we've had almost splinter knowledge. We've had assessments over here. State standards over there. Yep, a variety of responses here. We've never pulled it together in an integrated fashion."
But that is changing this year, Strong said. There is a districtwide culture of achievement emerging, she said.
"For the first time we are really focusing," she said. "We are using the same language. The same vocabulary. Our staff is very motivated, very passionate to make sure we are successfully educating all kids."
David Williams, principal of Prairie Park, said he also felt there was more unity of mission.
"There's no doubt we have a lot of work to do, but we're headed in the right direction," Williams said.
Crowther said she hit upon a point worth repeating. A majority of the elementary schools in Lawrence improved their scores on reading and math this year, she said.
In fact, 12 of 15 did better in math and 10 of 15 scored higher in reading.
"To me that is more relevant than why there is a disparity across the district," she said.