Steamboat Springs Administrator JoAnne Hilton-Gabeler said that while the Steamboat Springs School District is working to shrink an achievement gap between white and minority students, the gap is growing and is now larger than the state average.
According to the Colorado Department of Education, standardized testing differences between white and minority students in Steamboat Springs are most pronounced in reading and math scores. Nearly 89 percent of white students in Steamboat Springs scored proficient or advanced in reading portions of Colorado Student Assessment Program, or CSAP, tests taken last year - compared to 51 percent of their minority classmates. Although both white and minority students in Steamboat scored above Colorado's average reading scores, the 37.7 percent difference between the two groups surpasses the state's average achievement gap of 30.5 percent.
In math, the achievement gap between white and minority students in Steamboat is 29.1 percent. While minorities and whites again scored above their peers statewide - 78.6 percent of white students scored proficient or advanced, compared to 49.5 percent of minorities - the achievement gap is bigger than the state's average of 26.7 percent.
"In a district as high-performing as this, and given the fact we do as well on everything else, we should be beating the state gap in every area," said Hilton-Gabeler, the school district's director of curriculum and instruction.
The Department of Education released its accreditation review of Steamboat's school district last month. The review ranked Steamboat's overall performance as fourth-highest in the state's 178-district system.
But the review also showed that the gap between white and minority students in Steamboat is slightly widening. In reading, white students improved CSAP scores from 2006 to 2007 by .02 percent, while Hispanic student scores dropped by .15 percent. In math, white scores improved by .05 percent, while Hispanic students dropped .06.
The number of American Indian, Asian and black students is too small in Steamboat to compare each race from year to year, according to the Department of Education, which includes all the groups in cumulative minority scores.
"We are getting a little bit worse, but we are getting more minority students," Hilton-Gabeler said. "That has to be taken into consideration : we are not expecting to have another increase in our gap, but we are expecting an increase in our minority population."
According to the Department of Education, 91.7 percent of Steamboat students are white, 6 percent are Hispanic, 1.3 percent are Asian, 0.5 percent are American Indian and 0.3 percent are black.
Bridging the gap
Hilton-Gabeler said the district took a big step last year by hiring four English Language Learner teachers - who work with students learning English as a second language - for Steamboat schools.
School officials stressed Friday that not all minority students are ELL students, and that Hispanic students are not always in the ELL program because English may be their native language.
"Because Hispanic ELL students make up most of our minority students, that is kind of how we are looking at the problem," Hilton-Gabeler said.
Tim Bishop, principal at Steamboat Springs Middle School, said addressing achievement gaps is less about race and more about providing individual attention to students.
"We don't look at it like we have to do something different for minority students, instead we are at the point now where we are assessing the abilities of all students on a regular basis," he said.
The middle school has 22 ELL students, four more than last year.
"We are assessing at the beginning of the year and throughout to see where abilities, strengths and weaknesses are, then creating interventions where we see they may need support," Bishop said. "Then we will re-assess and see if those interventions are working or if we need to try another angle."
Strawberry Park Elementary School Principal Brenda Barr said school officials, including ELL teachers, work to differentiate educational opportunities to students, regardless of race. Soda Creek Principal Judy Harris said her staff also develops individualized education plans based on student needs.
"Differentiation is about assessing, planning, implementing and viewing," Harris said. "We will continue to learn new techniques and understand the needs of ELL students."
Hilton-Gabeler noted that the achievement gap between whites and minorities is smaller at the elementary schools than the middle school and high school, despite the fact that more minority students are enrolled at the elementary school level.
At Soda Creek, the ELL population has increased by three students, to 33 this year. At Strawberry Park, the ELL population has grown more than at any other district school - up nine students from last year's enrollment of 27.
"Our high school is our biggest challenge," Hilton-Gabeler said. "But that is probably the case in most districts. As you go up the hill of education, the challenges of being able to close gaps and being able to take care of what we consider educational inequities becomes more difficult."
She said the district also is working with Colorado Mountain College's family literacy program to better understand the needs of minority populations in Steamboat.
Hilton-Gabeler said the district projects that minority populations will grow from the elementary school level up.
"When we get them younger, we are hoping the ELL program we have in place will better serve them," she said, adding that the achievement gap may never fully close because the small number of minority students in the district skews test score comparisons.
"Districts with larger numbers of white students who do very well - that's us - and a smaller number of minorities who perform less - that's also us - may have a larger gap than districts that have more average performance from whites and minorities," she said.
Hilton-Gabeler said the district's efforts to expand programs such as all-day kindergarten and after-school activities could increase the educational abilities of all students.
"In education, you look at the whole of the child to make sure the services are there so they can perform to the best of their ability," she said.