Of the more than 500 students identified as gifted in the Lawrence public school district, only eight are black.
Instead, a black student in the district is more likely to be identified as having a learning disability than as being gifted. When the educational paths of students are parsed out, other students of color also face lopsided odds.
For them, as compared with their white peers, the numbers show a pattern of inequity that overlays placement in gifted programs, identification as learning disabled and the severity of discipline meted out.
As part of the district’s years-long effort to address inequities in the district, a comprehensive report breaks down racial demographics regarding academic, discipline and special education programs districtwide. With those numbers in hand, board members and district leaders are refocusing their equity efforts, and are set to host a community conversation on race Monday.
School Board President Marcel Harmon said previously established district-level equity groups have fizzled out, and he sees the event as a re-initiation of engagement with the community around issues with race and its impact on the district.
“To move forward, it’s going to take more than just the district looking at this,” Harmon said. “We need to work with the community to help address these issues as well.”
What the numbers show
2016 Equity Report ( .PDF )
When it comes to identifying racial disparities within the district, it’s a study of comparisons.
When compared to their white peers, some students of color are twice as likely to land in certain subgroups, such as students identified as learning disabled or those given out-of-school suspension. Other groups, such as white and Asian students, are underrepresented in those categories and have disproportionate representation in academically accelerated classes.
For instance, black students made up 6.5 percent of the student population, according to the 2016 equity report. That same year, black students represented 13 percent of those identified as learning disabled and 17 percent of those given out-of-school suspension.
Black students' representation in accelerated academic programs was also lopsided: they are are 1.6 percent of those identified as gifted and about 3 percent in advanced placement classes. Though the numbers vary, other students of color were also unequally represented on both sides of the spectrum.
For white and Asian students, the reverse pattern was true. For instance, white students made up about 67 percent of the student population in 2016. That same year, white students represented 50 percent of those identified as learning disabled and 52 percent of those given out-of-school suspension.
Conversely, white students represented 78 percent of the students in gifted and 75 percent of students in advanced placement classes. Asian students are only about 4 percent of the population, but represent more than 11 percent of gifted students and 5 percent of advanced placement classes.
Special Education program
The learning disabled and gifted programs are run by the district’s special education program, which was the subject of a separate district-commissioned review released on Monday.
That report offered a positive assessment for several aspects of the program itself, such as satisfaction of parents of special education students. But it also noted the racial disparities and recommended that the district study the issue and take steps to correct it.
The consultants who conducted the review recommended that for schools where racial discrepancies are more than two-fold that special education administrators review all referrals for special education prior to evaluation.
But addressing the special education program can’t only be a policy decision, district leaders say. Kevin Harrell, executive director of student services, said it couldn’t be about caps or quotas.
“If it really is a disability, we have to meet that need,” Harrell said. “Now the question becomes, are we meeting those students’ needs in general ed prior to that? Because if you meet their needs and they’re not referred for special education, then you don’t have to worry about a cap.”
The consultants also suggest a year of studying data regarding the program and coming up with a plan to improve disproportionate representation. School Board Vice President Shannon Kimball said that recommendation is testament to the fact that there is no “overnight fix” for improving the disparities.
“If there was an easy fix to this, we would already be doing it,” Kimball said. “But it’s hard work; it’s change over time that has to happen. The bigger picture thing is that our district is committed to doing that hard work to make a difference, and we’re not afraid to look at that data and talk about it and be open and transparent about it.”
Reasons for disparity
For improvements to be made, causes will have to be pinned down. Harmon said that examining the reasons for the disparities, both societal and institutional, will be part of the board’s effort to address the issue.
“I’m sure aspects of racism probably play a part of it, unconscious biases I’m sure play a role in it, all of those do,” Harmon said. “But teasing out what the specifics are and how we address them, we have to investigate further, I think.”
The achievement gap between subgroups of students is a nationwide issue, and socioeconomic status of students’ families is often cited as a main indicator for academic success.
Similar to the rest of the country, many of the highest achieving students in the district tend to be both white and economically advantaged, meaning they don’t meet the low-income guidelines to qualify for reduced school fees and lunches.
Kimball said those outside factors are part of the discussion, but that institutional biases also play a role.
“It’s all part of the same set of societal issues that we have been trying to confront through our focus on equity in our classrooms, right?” Kimball said. “I believe that institutional racism is real, but I also believe that our district is doing more work than most districts do to confront that.”
What makes an institution?
Behind some of the disproportionate numbers, there is an institution, with policies and norms, but also with people making decisions.
Though there are guidelines for discipline and academic placement, there is still an element of teacher or administrator discretion. For instance, testing for gifted placement or learning disabilities can be done at the request of a parent, but also at the referral of a teacher.
The district has already undertaken an effort to address potential bias.
The district has had equity as one of its three main goals for the past 10 years. Teachers and other staff have undergone diversity training, curriculum has been expanded to include more cultural perspectives, and racial disparities have gotten increased scrutiny.
“It’s a comprehensive effort,” Kimball said. “It’s not just one thing or two things or even a checklist of things.”
There have been improvements, including better graduation rates, as well as the establishment of school equity councils and new programs. One such program is AVID, which supports underrepresented middle and high school students who want to take advanced placement classes.
But still, the disproportion in some of the numbers suggests the problem needs further attention. Harmon said he thinks they are starting to realize that more resources, and potentially additional staff at the district level, are needed to meet the district’s equity goals.
“I think we’ve come to the realization that we need to put additional resources to this to make them happen more effectively,” Harmon said. “Training is a big thing, really. I know we need more effort in that regard: Teacher training, staff training and building administrative training relative to the equity work.”
The district’s equity work, but also the reasons it is necessary, are likely to play into the Community Conversation on racial equity Monday.
Pastor Adrion Roberson, an adaptive leadership facilitator on the faculty of the Kansas Leadership Center in Wichita, will lead the community conversation.
In addition to a way to engage the public, Harmon said the community conversation will be a way to find people who would like to participate in the equity council. He said the council will include members of the public, a couple of board members and district administrators.
Like Harmon, Kimball said the goal of the conversation was to directly involve the community in the district’s efforts.
“That’s part of what the (community) conversation next week is designed to do,” Kimball said. “To continue to help us build those groups of support outside of our buildings and involve them more in our discussions of what we’re doing, how we’re doing it and how we can continue to improve what we’re already doing.”
The Community Conversation about racial equity in Lawrence Public Schools will be 6 p.m. Monday in the Lawrence High School cafeteria, 1901 Louisiana St.