Andrea Eusan, president of Briargate Elementary School’s parent-teacher organization, recalls when the campus received an Improvement Required rating from the Texas Education Agency four years ago.
“The community felt that Briargate was such an underperforming school,” said Eusan, who has two fourth graders at Briargate. “We still have a bad name because of those many problems in the past.”
She said some of the factors that led to the rating included low test scores and lack of school staff support as well as the lower socio-economic environment in which some parents struggled to balance full-time jobs with getting their children to school on time.
Along with that rating, Briargate’s student population in 2015-16 was 75.4% economically disadvantaged, meaning they qualify for reduced-price or free lunches or other public assistance.
These factors placed Briargate, and other Fort Bend ISD schools, among Texas schools with higher economic disadvantage rates receiving lower state accountability ratings—a trend that is still evident, according to a Community Impact Newspaper analysis of TEA school accountability ratings.
FBISD recognizes this and has begun implementing programs—including the Early Literacy Center at Ridgemont Elementary School—to address the gap, FBISD Chief Academic Officer Diana Sayavedra said.
“We continue to see challenges with low student achievement in schools where a majority of children are economically disadvantaged,” Sayavedra said. “We know in order to bridge that gap there is more investment we may need to make in our district.”
Of the 75 schools in FBISD given a score in 2017-18, all schools earned the Met Standard label. However, four schools with 80% economically disadvantaged students averaged a 75 rating, while 16 campuses where less than 20% of students are economically disadvantaged received an average rating of 94, according to the data.
Measuring true accountability
Each year, TEA measures academic performance of districts and campuses in three areas: School Achievement, School Progress and Closing the Gaps.
FBISD was not rated overall in 2017-18 because of the state’s Hurricane Harvey Provision. However, the district would have received an 89, according to the TEA.
Commonwealth Elementary School has the district’s lowest percentage of economically disadvantaged students at 2.1%, receiving an accountability rating of 97 from the TEA. Meanwhile, Ridgegate Elementary School—the campus with the district’s highest level of economic disadvantage at 89.3%—received a 71.
In addition to new programming, Sayavedra said the district is also lobbying for improvements in state accountability measures, including changes to the A-F accountability rating system implemented in 2017-18.
“The reality of the state assessment is if you look at the trend, the vast majorities of As, Bs and some Cs are from more affluent schools,” she said. “The other Cs, Ds and Fs, are tied to economic disadvantage. That is telling.”
FBISD and other school districts have criticized the TEA’s A-F system since it was established in 2017 by House Bill 22 in the 85th Texas Legislature to replace the previous Met Standard/Improvement Required ratings.
TEA officials have defended the system, which is designed to make a district’s overall annual progress more easily understood than the previous ratings, said Lauren Callahan, TEA media relations manager.
However, Sayavedra said the rating only partially measures what occurs on a campus.
“A campus might have a D because of what happened in school that one day, but that is not showing the learning gap overcome, the measure of growth or the hours of mentorship from adults over a year,” she said.
Nine traditional school districts statewide received an F rating in 2017-18. Of those districts, six had a higher-than-average economic disadvantage rate, according to TEA data.
Nevertheless, Callahan told Community Impact Newspaper the TEA denies a “strong relationship” between economic disadvantage and ratings.
“We know that while there may be a moderate factor between a child’s economically disadvantaged status and results, we here at the agency know there is not a strong relationship between the two,” she said.
Across Texas, 58.7% of students are considered economically disadvantaged. In FBISD, 37.3% of students fall into this category, and 49 of its 75 schools exceed the state average.
The challenges for children from lower-income households fall into one of two buckets: academic or non-academic, said Kellie O’Quinn, director of research for Children at Risk’s Center of Social Measurement and Evaluation, a Houston-based nonprofit child advocacy group.
On the academic side, a child might start school already behind due to coming from an environment that did not teach early reading skills. Gaps often widen as a result, O’Quinn said.
On the non-academic side, a child may not have access to health care, nutritious and consistent meals or may be exposed to violence at a young age—all of which affect the ability to learn, O’Quinn said.
When it comes to academic success, she said the correlation between poverty and academic performance balances out as time goes by, and a culture of high expectations on campuses will actually inspire students.
“Research on high-performing, high-poverty schools shows children will live up to whatever expectations you set for them and will frequently work to rise and meet them if they also see their teachers doing the work, too,” O’Quinn said.
Schools doing well examine data to determine what skills students should be mastering and figure out if that means reteaching skills, O’Quinn said.
In addition, Teresa Edgar, associate dean of undergraduate studies for The University of Houston’s College of Education, said teachers should seek out differences in their students when creating lesson plans to incorporate perspectives and needs.
“I train teachers to think about resiliency, and what we can do to be effective teachers and role models by talking about adversity and how students can rise above it,” Edgar said.
Bridging the gap
One skills gap solution implemented by FBISD this school year is already showing progress.
In February, school officials reported that prekindergarten students enrolled in the Early Literacy Center at Ridgemont Elementary School—part of the Willowridge High School feeder pattern—increased their ability to recognize letters and their sounds to 80% from 56% during the five months of the school year.
Over that same period of time, monolingual students increased their mathematics proficiency to 91% from 80%, while bilingual student proficiency grew to 88% from 52%, according to the data.
“We believe that if students have a solid foundation in early literacy developmental skills, they will be able to transfer these skills to other academic content areas,” said Venitra Senegal, instructional officer for the Early Literary Center via email.
When Nuvia Alviter’s son, Lio Cruz, started kindergarten at the Early Literacy Center this year, she said he did not know numbers or letters, but now counts, recites letters and can read.
Alviter lives in the Ridgegate Elementary area, and said she was happy that Lio was able to participate in the Early Literacy Center. She said she expects to keep Lio in the program for first grade.
“I have seen the changes in him from day one to today, and he is now excited to learn,” she said.
FBISD plans to expand the Early Literacy Center to other elementary schools with lower literacy scores over the next three years, Sayavedra said.
Meanwhile, Briargate Elementary is now one of the high-performing, high-poverty schools. The school scored an 81 in the 2017-18 school year.
The school’s success is rooted in a support system that includes dedicated teachers, staff and parents providing focused instruction and differentiated learning, Briargate Principal LaToya Garrett said via email. The school also analyzes data and creates individualized student instruction, she said.
Eusan said she agreed that those components have contributed to the school’s success.
“We see differences in how academics have gone up in terms of testing,” Eusan said. “Parents are very happy with the new staff because they work so well together with our children to increase test scores and get back on track.”