What happens when number one isn’t good enough?

 Massachusetts faces a significant achievement gap

Massachusetts consistently receives number one rankings in the U.S. based on 4th and 8th grade reading and math scores and percentages of students going on to post-secondary education.  At the same time, low-income students received scores 25-30 points lower in 4th and 8th grade reading and math tests than those in higher income brackets, giving Massachusetts the third-highest achievement gap between low-income students and the rest of the state’s student population, according to WBUR’s Learning Lab.

August Stat Shot Achievement Gap CROPLow-income students face a variety of obstacles that can’t just be addressed in the classroom or by public schools alone. Poverty, lack of quality early education and social-emotional challenges are large, complex issues that require an all-hands-on-deck approach from the entire community.

This is the challenge facing policy makers, educators, government officials and philanthropy as Massachusetts students prepare to head back to school next month. With 461 school districts in the state serving 40% or more low-income students, there is great opportunity to improve rankings, solidify Massachusetts’ top spot in the U.S., and more importantly, create a lasting effect on student success.

Bringing together the best resources to Address the problem

Americorps Achievement As the new school year approaches, United Way is committed to bringing together partners and resources to help address the needs of low-income students and their families.

To start, United Way places a strong emphasis on making a difference as early as possible, investing in high-quality early education for low-income children to get them ready for school and lay the foundation for their future learning. Last year, United Way funded 61 community-based organizations that helped provide 14,000 low-income children with quality early education and care that promotes early literacy and social skills, along with intensive supports to help children with learning challenges to stay on track.

Once kids are in school, United Way is helping to make sure they receive the support they need year-round for educational success. Last year, we funded 95 community-based organizations that provided 24,000 students with academic support and tutoring programs during the after-school hours.

The achievement gap and English Language Learners

But some communities face unique challenges that require even more targeted investment and intervention. Lynn and Salem, for example, have high percentages of students who are not only low-income but are also English Language Learners. Immigrant students face a variety of hurdles that keep them from reaching their full potential – from learning the language to adjusting to a new culture.

According to the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, 54% of students in Lynn Public Schools and 29% of students in Salem Public Schools are in a household where English is not the language spoken at home, compared to 18% of students statewide. The graduation rate among English Language Learner students in Lynn is 56% and 65% in Salem, compared to an 85% graduation rate statewide.

Investing in the future

UW20160801-0047-XLThis month, in partnership with the Massachusetts Service Alliance, United Way was joined by U.S. Representative Seth Moulton to announce it is investing over $2 million over the next three years for the Corporation for National & Community Service to expand a successful AmeriCorps partnership with Lynn Public Schools that is improving academic outcomes among immigrant students into two schools in Salem during the upcoming school year. Last year, 75% of the participating students in Lynn demonstrated improved academic engagement and over 60% showed increased performance in core academic classes.

The program will place 25 AmeriCorps members in schools and non-profit organizations throughout Lynn and Salem, MA, to provide tutoring and academic support services to English language learners.

Margarita Ruiz, Superintendent of Salem Public Schools, said, “We are so pleased to have partnered with the United Way of Mass Bay and Merrimack Valley for this terrific opportunity to have AmeriCorps members in Salem to mentor and support our English Language Learners both in and out of the classroom. This complements our District’s strategy to support diverse learners. We know that these individuals will have a positive impact in helping our ELL students achieve and excel in and out of school.”

“This is a great example of taking an innovative model that works in one city and replicating it in another to help even more students succeed,” said Michael K. Durkin, President at United Way of Massachusetts Bay and Merrimack Valley, which has been overseeing the program in Lynn since 2013. “The increased coordination and communication between the schools and the community-based organizations who are typically providing after-school programming better identify students in need of academic support and provide them with tutoring and other services.”

Durkin notes the importance of partnerships in helping to improve the academic outcomes for low-income students, saying, “We are proud to stand with these cities, along with all of the cities and towns in our region, to build on their strengths and work together to help reduce poverty rates, decrease unemployment rates and help ensure all of our students succeed.”