District U46’s official aims to close gaps achievement levels
By Emily McFarlan Miller firstname.lastname@example.org August 21, 2013 5:10PM
U46 Chief of Equity and Social Justice Ron Raglin at his office in Elgin. | Emily McFarlan Miller~Sun-Times Media
Updated: September 23, 2013 6:46AM
ELGIN — Ron Raglin has been there for the public comments over past year at School District U46 Board of Education meetings.
The U46 chief of equity and social justice was there this spring when his friend, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, toured Streamwood High School, when the question-and-answer session afterward turned from student achievement to achievement gaps in the second-largest school district in the state.
He was there when current and former board members were moved nearly to tears describing those gaps to the secretary, saying that race and class still are an issue in 2013, and explaining the pushback from some community members against U46’s efforts to close them.
“I just believe in that communication. We have to communicate,” Raglin said. “We’re never opposed to people asking questions. Really, just give us the chance to explain.”
Raglin is the district’s second chief of equity and social justice, a position that — along with its six-figure salary — was met with some public outcry when it was created in the 2011-12 school year.
He sat down with The Courier-News last week, just before the start of the 2013-14 school year, to talk about the controversy, the difference between the achievement gap and excellence gap, and what closing those gaps will look like this year in the Elgin school district.
Equity and excellence
The district’s equity work is part of the its goal, set down in “Destination 2015,” the district’s five-year academic plan, Raglin said: “Academic success for all.”
And it’s not just about closing achievement gaps but also closing the excellence gap, according to the equity chief, a shift in verbiage during his tenure that public commenters have noted.
The difference between the two, he said, is that if one student has a 60 percent and another 20 percent, and you bring that second student up to 60, you’ve closed the achievement gap. Both, though, are “still not meeting the standard,” he said.
He said the work of the district is determining where that standard of excellence is — college and career readiness, according to its mission statement — then how to move all its students toward that standard when they come from such different “places,” he said. That’s not just geographical place but also income, race, culture and experience.
That’s where achievement gaps come in, Raglin said.
But it’s not just investing resources to bring up low-performing students’ grades or test scores, he said. It’s not ignoring high-performing students and assuming they’ll be OK. It’s making sure those students are applying to colleges, making sure those colleges are a good fit, and removing barriers to college, he said.
“That is the work. That is why we’re all here — to serve students and serve their families,” he said.
‘In the people business’
During his visit last school year to Streamwood High School, Duncan had questioned whether the district’s achievement gaps were racial or socioeconomic.
They’re both, U46 Superintendent Jose Torres said at the time: 19 percent of seniors who are black and 22 percent of students who are Hispanic have scored at least a 21 on the ACT, the district’s benchmark for college readiness. Meantime, 55 percent of white and 62 percent of Asian students test college-ready.
“So we’re not hitting our mark,” Torres had said.
But, Raglin told The Courier-News last week, the district doesn’t simply look at race, a concern that has come up during public comments at school board meetings. It also breaks down its data by grade, by school, by income level, by gender and ZIP code, he said.
It looks at that data the same way any other business does, “so they can know where we need support,” he said. Only in education, he added, “We’re in the people business.”
“In the backdrop of the country, it becomes, oh, here we go again,” he said.
Equity, Raglin noted, is different from equality. It’s not giving everybody the same thing; it’s giving to people according to their needs, he said.
“That equity piece is, where is the need? Look at the data, and the data tells you where it is. That’s where you make your investment,” he said.
Some of the investments U46 is making in the 2013-14 school year, which began Monday, include building on the success of its AVID (Advancement Via Individual Determination) college preparatory program, which takes middle-performing students and places them into advanced courses with support. This spring, 80 percent of the program’s first graduating class was accepted to a four-year university.
But only about 25 percent of students eligible for AVID have enrolled, a number the district hopes to increase this year. It won’t settle that number or even the number of teachers who attended training for the program over the summer until late September, Raglin said.
The Elgin school district also would like to increase the number of high school sophomores who take the PSAE, a standardized test it pays for that is linked to Advanced Placement potential and college readiness, the equity chief said.
New this school year, former Chief of Equity and Social Justice Ushma Shah has moved into the role of overseeing instruction and equity in the 10 U46 elementary schools that are involved in federal restructuring.
The district also is launching its Game Changers Initiative, which pairs struggling high school students with adult mentors. Its first face-to-face training for those members, in addition to online seminars, will be Sept. 11.
Raglin also will continue to take calls like the one he said he recently fielded from a South Elgin High School parent who was concerned about the superintendent’s role on the U.S. Equity and Excellence Commission and with how the district seemingly invests all its resources in “Hispanic students and others.”
He said the list of South Elgin students for whom he was trying to find a mentor happened to be open on his computer. Of the 40, he said, 23 percent of the juniors and 25 to 30 percent of the seniors were white.
After that, he said, the caller’s demeanor changed.
“I like to hear people. I’m not like, ‘Uh-oh, race card!’ I really want to hear people because we all have blind spots,” Raglin said.
“It’s just really having an honest conversation. Here’s the data. We’re not making this up. We’re in this all together.”