Champaign to make progress in closing achievement gap

By Alissa Groeninger

The Champaign School District has made strides in closing the achievement gap between black students and their peers through the court-ordered consent decree that the district received in 2002.

The district was sued in 1996 for not providing black students with the same opportunities as other students, said Carol Ashley, lead counsel in the plaintiffs’ lawsuit. The case was settled in 1997.

Ashley said the districting plan in effect prior to 1996, which determined which schools Champaign students would attend, violated state and federal laws because it promoted segregation.

“It continued to place burdens on African-American students,” she said.

In 2002, another student claimed the district provided black students with limited resources, which resulted in the consent decree. The decree established guidelines to correct the educational gap.

Ashley said the district was failing because it did not use the right indicators to determine who should be in gifted courses. As a result, black students were not properly represented in these higher-level courses.

Representatives from Unit 4 and the attorneys for the plaintiffs have been meeting with a judge periodically to discuss the district’s improvement and to decide if the consent decree should be renewed.

“We are most pleased with improvements in academics for all students,” said Beth Sheppard, assistant superintendent for human resources and community relations for Unit 4.

Ashley agreed that the district has made progress.

At a Sept. 15 School Board meeting, members decided to make improvements to Garden Hills Elementary and possibly rebuild Washington Elementary. The improvements will add classroom space and were mandated by the consent decree.

“(They) have really turned it around,” Ashley said.

At their most recent meeting held Sept. 3, the parties directly involved in the consent decree reviewed the district’s improvements. Improved academic achievement among all students, especially black students, at the elementary and middle school levels was noted. Other successes include the district’s reorganization of curriculum and staffing of black faculty members.

“(Hiring black faculty members) models the appreciation for all cultures that we want to see from our students,” Sheppard said.

Ashley said the district has hired administrators who understand what needs to be done to improve the district.

There are more black students in higher-level classes, Sheppard added. The district now tests every first-grader to determine what level classes he or she should take.

Kristine Chalifoux, Champaign School Board member, said the district was clearly failing but has made changes since the consent decree, which have produced better test scores among black students.

“I firmly believe that all kids have the same rights to education,” she added.

The district has improved their test scores by giving resources to the north side Champaign schools, which is where black students were the most behind. Also, the Schools of Choice program has allowed black students to attend schools throughout the district, creating more diversity in each school.

Sheppard said the district needs to continue to improve attendance and ratios in special education programs among black students as well as disciplinary issues.

Ashley hopes the district can make as much progress as possible this year with the court’s direction.

“We will continue to do everything we can even after the decree,” Chalifoux said.