To Close Achievement Gap, 13 Boston Public Schools Increase Access To Advanced Work

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Boston Public Schools Superintendent Tommy Chang. (Jesse Costa/WBUR/file)
Boston Public Schools Superintendent Tommy Chang. (Jesse Costa/WBUR/file)

In an effort to close the persistent achievement gap between black and Latino students and their classmates, Boston Public Schools are trying something new this year.

Thirteen elementary schools will now offer what are called “Advanced Work Classes,” or AWC, to all of their fourth graders. Until now, students had to test into the program, which offers an accelerated curriculum and can increase their chances of gaining admission to an exam school.

This year's fourth graders at Curley will continue to do advanced work in the fifth and sixth grades. The other 12 schools have implemented similar changes, and the district plans to expand the program to all schools in the next three to five years.

Superintendent Tommy Chang reflected on the change after visiting two fifth-grade classrooms on Thursday, the first day of school, at the Curley K-8 School in Jamaica Plain.

The two classes were both working on math — but one was originally designated a general education class, while the other was an AWC room. Its students had been invited in third grade to take a special test that gave them access to this accelerated program of study.

"They’re learning the same thing," Chang said. "We don’t need them to be separated."

So, from now on, they won't be. AWC, now called “Excellence for All,” will give all students a chance to study subjects like language arts, math concepts at a grade level ahead and a specially designed curriculum that includes reading classic novels.

“Excellence for All” is part of Chang’s long-term initiative to close the achievement gap.

"This work was led by teachers and parents at the Curley," Chang said, "who felt it was critical that more students at the Curley K-8 get the rigor that kids in AWC classes had."

The idea was sparked three years ago after the Curley participated in the YWCA’s “Race Dialogues” program. Families began to talk openly about the discrepancies between Advanced Work Classes and the general population. Most students in AWC were white; the general ed classes were filled with black and brown children.

Curley Principal Katie Grassa said teachers have discovered, through extensive training, ways to make certain that high-performing kids in their classes are challenged — while also tending to the needs of students performing at or below grade level.

"For example, you’re reading a core novel — we have a child that’s reading below grade level who is having trouble reading the text themselves," Grassa said. "Through technology, we can have apps and headphones for students to listen to the text. So a child might not be able to independently read this text on their own, but they can listen to the text. And therefore, when the conversation comes along, the child can engage."

There is a direct link between having access to advanced work classes, testing into exam schools and ultimately getting into college. The district will study what happens this year at the 13 schools piloting the program. The final goal is to provide advanced rigor for all elementary school students.

Clarification: This post has been updated to clarify not all schools will implement the change in exactly the same way.

This article was originally published on September 08, 2016.

This segment aired on September 8, 2016.

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Tonya Mosley Correspondent, Here & Now
Tonya Mosley was the LA-based co-host of Here & Now.



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