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Closing Escambia's achievement gap can pay great dividends

  • Jul 22, 2016
  • Shannon Nickinson
Variety of books lying on a table Variety of books lying on a table

Credit: Shannon Nickinson.

Good things go on every day in Escambia County schools.

But some schools have a longer row to hoe than others.

Acknowledging that is not an excuse. It is, rather, showing that we understand, as a community, not all of our children have equal access to the opportunity to maximize their potential.

It is having the scales fall from our eyes — especially about the impact poverty has on our youngest citizens.

In March, the nonprofits Education Cities and Great Schools, ranked the top 100 cities in America according to how they close the "achievement gap."

The gap, first identified by University of Kansas research Betty Hart and Todd Risely, shows that children who grow up in poverty hear 30 million fewer words, and fewer positive, constructive, affirmational words by age 3 than their peers from better-off families.

The lack of language — not just in the sheer number of words a child hears, but also in the tone those words have — impacts how poor students perform in school and on standardized tests.

That gap impacts the physical development of the brain at its most vulnerable time.

When that language gap also develops in an environment where a young child is exposed to chronic, high levels of stress, the effects can be far-reaching.

Young children whose brains are bathed over and over again in stress hormones, research shows, are less likely to develop the ability to regulate their emotions, behavior and higher-order thinking skills.

It can, quite literally, damage their young brains, over-developing their “fight or flight” response and hurting their ability to cope with adversities, small and large, as they grow up.

Its effects linger into a child’s school years, where children with less developed language skills lag behind their peers in reading and often throughout the rest of their academic lives.

The Education Cities report used rankings based on how many low-income students scored proficient on standardized tests compared to all students who took the test.

The Education Cities report ranked the top 100 cities in the country based on population. Pensacola isn’t in that group, but where does Escambia County, as a whole, fall on those same criteria?

First, I looked at Florida Standards Assessment data from 2015 for all of the counties in the state with population of 100,000 or more.

It shows 45 percent of all Escambia students were satisfactory or higher in language arts, while 35 percent of low-income students met the same target.

Final data from the Florida Department of Education for 2015 shows the gap in FSA reading scores between all students and those who come from economically disadvantaged homes.

Data from the Florida Department of Education for 2015 shows the percentage of students scoring satisfactory or above on the language arts portion of the Florida Standards Assessment. The gap notes the difference in FSA scores between all students and those who come from economically disadvantaged homes.

That 10-percentage point gap puts Escambia in about the middle of the pack amid mid-sized to large counties.

The impact poverty has on students in Escambia County, across Florida and throughout the nation is clear.

Growing up in poverty is stressful. Jack Shonkoff, director of the Harvard Center on the Developing Child, told PBS Newshour that not all children who grow up in poverty experience “toxic stress.” But those who do, are having the wiring of their brains short-circuited.

That makes it harder for those children to develop the problem-solving skills and resilience they will need later in life.

Every school in Escambia County that was graded D or F on the preliminary 2016 FSA results is majority poor and majority black.

There are 17 majority minority elementary schools in Escambia County. The highest FSA grade any of them earned is a C.

If Black Lives Matter — indeed if All Lives Matter —  here’s where we can show it.

This chart shows the gap in reading scores for black students on the 2015 Florida Standards Assessment test. Data source is the Florida Department of Education.

This chart, which the percentage of students scoring satisfactory or higher, shows the gap in reading scores for black students on the 2015 Florida Standards Assessment test. Data source is the Florida Department of Education.

This is a place where those phrases can be more than a hashtag, more than an angry shorthand for the inequities that plague this and other communities across the country.

The place to make that rubber meet the road is with our children and their parents. Programs like the Thirty Million Words Initiative and an experimental preschool project in Chicago Heights, both tied to the University of Chicago, found that giving parents the tools and motivation they may have lacked to be better first teachers pays off.

The winners of the Studer Community Institute’s Be the Bulb challenge both were built on the idea of taking early learning resources to parents at the neighborhood level. Dozens of other submissions to the $50,000 early learning challenge SCI issued touched on the same principle.

All parents in every ZIP code benefits from knowing strategies to talk more to their babies and toddlers.

Because every baby’s brain feeds on the same thing — words from a caring adult spoken in a positive way in the context of a loving, nurturing relationship.

Can Pensacola become the kind of community where, in Dr. Dana Suskind’s words, parents are encouraged to tune in, talk more and take turns to build the language bank for all of her children?

Maybe the better question is, can Pensacola afford not to become that kind of community?

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