As achievement gap widens, Phoenixville schools seek ways to close it

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Phoenixville High School students Jake Lavigne (left) and Camryn Dobey (center), along with their guidance counselor Christine Skonieczny, discuss the Bridge to Employment program.

Roger Salguero's ascent from a 7-year-old Spanish-speaking immigrant to a 22-year-old engineering major with a university degree in his reach is a testament to the Phoenixville Area School District's crusade to boost student achievement.

Salguero credits a high school teacher who "saw potential in me that I hadn't seen" and challenged him to take the Advanced Placement math course, putting him on the path to Penn State.

That kind of guidance has helped elevate the Phoenixville system to third place in a U.S. News & World Report ranking of college readiness among Chester County's 12 districts - even though it has more economically disadvantaged students than many of the others.

More than feel-good stories, though, Phoenixville administrators see Salguero and successes like him as evidence that, ultimately, they can conquer a problem that has worsened in the district in the last several years: the achievement gap between a growing number of high performers and students, typically from less privileged households, whose test scores and grades are, at best, mediocre.

The gulf was unmistakable in last year's Keystone exams for high school students. Those considered economically disadvantaged - who qualified for reduced-price or free lunches - scored 34.2 percent lower in Algebra 1 and 28.7 percent lower in literature than the rest of their peers. The 2016 PSSA scores for third to fifth graders from lower-income homes showed a 25.3 percent gap in both English/language arts and math.

It would be hard to imagine a better laboratory for tackling the achievement gap than Phoenixville, once a Schuylkill steel town that in the last decade has seen its trendy Main Street lure upscale professionals to new condos and apartments, even as established working-class neighborhoods were slammed hard by the Great Recession.

Of the district's 3,740 students, 76 percent are white, more than 10 percent Latino, and nearly 7 percent African American. Phoenixville educators have had to cope with sharply rising levels of poverty. The number of economically disadvantaged students nearly doubled from 578 in 2011-12 to 1,025 this year, or 27 percent of the student population - the fifth highest among Chester County districts.

In trying to narrow the achievement gap, Phoenixville is taking on an issue that has bedeviled school administrators not just in the Philadelphia region but nationally for decades.

Last year, a major study of Pennsylvania schools by the Rand Corp. found that the state could have boosted its economy by $44 billion over the last decade if gaps in graduation rates and other measures of student achievement - driven by income and parental education disparities, as well as race and ethnicity - were closed.

"The achievement gap is a complex issue," said LeRoy Whitehead, assistant superintendent of the Phoenixville district. "There's no magic pill to take."

But there are innovative steps, and Phoenixville is trying them out. The district has intensified its focus on youths such as 15-year-old sophomore Jake Lavigne, a self-described B student. He is learning about job pathways in health care through a program called Bridge to Employment, in which 50 high school students are mentored by volunteers from industry giant Johnson & Johnson.

"It means an opportunity to get myself out there," said Lavigne, "and learn more about what it means to be in the business world."

In addition to the career-mentoring program, administrators have launched or are weighing a host of new programs. They include a community-wide assembly of social-service providers, called the HUB, that concentrates on helping individual families with complex social problems. Also in the works: a new elementary school targeting kindergartners and first-graders with literacy programs.

So far, Phoenixville's major focus has been on identifying students with untapped potential, such as Salguero, and pushing them into Advanced Placement, or AP, classes - even though the suggested prerequisites might be lacking. Salguero, who took ESL (English as a second language) classes and struggled early in his school days, said taking AP calculus was a turning point.

"It kind of helped me realize how much potential I had," said the Guatemalan native - the first in his family to graduate from high school, let alone attend college.

Over the last seven school years, the number of Phoenixville students taking AP courses more than tripled - from 163 in 2010-11 to 507 this year - and the district saw its college readiness rankings also rise. The down side: a wider divide between those high-achievers and non-AP students.

The issue has long been contentious in the Philadelphia region. During the 2000s in the affluent Lower Merion School District, African American parents pursued a high-profile lawsuit alleging that their children were disproportionately placed in special-ed classes or given "baby work." Their case was eventually dismissed.

Phoenixville administrators considered a wide range of methods to close the gap before any tensions boil over. With Johnson & Johnson's three-year mentoring program - in 72 districts nationwide - the decision was made to focus on students who showed potential but weren't ready for AP classes.

"It's helping them see the doors that they don't even know exist," said Superintendent Alan Fegley.

Sophomore Camryn Dobey, 15, a participant in the Bridge to Employment program, said she mostly gets B's and some A's now, but is hoping to achieve her ambitious goal, held since kindergarten, of becoming a doctor. "This will help me explore all of my options and get it all together so . . . I know what I have to do in college," she said.

The district is also considering programs such as a "Walking School Bus," in which adults escort children to school.

Lou Beccaria, president and CEO of the Phoenixville Community Health Foundation, is helping to launch the Hub, a collaborative social-services approach that has representatives from several agencies, such as police, mental health services, and the schools, join to help families. The program can offer early intervention for problems such as homelessness or mental-health crises that have a profound impact on how students perform.

The group meets every three weeks to work on specific needs, such as a family lacking warm coats or a student needing a ride to an after-school program. Those offering help are held accountable for actually providing it.

"It takes more than education," Beccaria stressed. "A lot of these kids are dealing with a multitude of social issues that impinge upon their ability to succeed in school, and that's what they're trying to put on the front burner."

kboccella@phillynews.com

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@Kathy_Boccella