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Swikar Patel | The Journal Gazette
Fort Wayne/Allen County NAACP branch President Paulette Nellems reads a statement about the recent drop in ISTEP+ scores to the East Allen board Tuesday.

Redirect boycott effort

The NAACP’s call for a boycott of East Allen County Schools does nothing for the students it purports to help. If black community leaders are serious about eliminating the achievement gap there, they need to do more than push parents to choose other schools – including schools with unproven records, schools with records worse than East Allen’s and even schools seeking to re-establish the segregation the late Supreme Court justice abhorred.

Working from outside the district has not worked. African-American students need more strong advocates within the system, beginning with the school board.

The protest staged outside Tuesday’s board meeting supposedly was a response to ISTEP+ scores that showed discouraging performance by black students in the East Allen district. Just a third of the black students districtwide passed the reading and math portions of the standardized test, compared with more than 65 percent of students overall.

But the wide performance gap at East Allen isn’t new. For many years, this page has been critical of the wide gap between schools in the former Paul Harding High School attendance area and the Leo schools area. At first glance the latest results would suggest more of the same. But a districtwide redesign that brought improved racial balance to the schools and addressed instruction hasn’t had a chance to show results. Superintendent Karyle Green is right when she notes that the ISTEP+ scores are a single snapshot. Passing-rate comparisons are informative but incomplete because they compare different groups of students in different years.

The state hasn’t yet released student growth data – a better measure because it shows how individual students did from one year to the next. Green said she’s hopeful the results will be positive.

“We anticipate growth,” she said. “It was the first year of benchmarking for Paul Harding (Jr. High School). We are just looking at plain, raw scores. All of the (other) indicators showed us we were making progress.”

Green also is looking at what’s worked elsewhere, with plans to adopt a school-improvement program that helped the diverse Brazos- port, Texas, schools close its achievement gap. The “8-Step Process” has shown success in Indiana districts, including Marion Community Schools and Warren Township schools in Marion County.

The approach is far more promising than alternatives offered by the protesters. If systemic change is what they believe is needed, they would serve East Allen students better to support changes from within. The Paul Harding attendance area hasn’t had effective representation from its school board member, the Rev. Stephen Terry, whose loyalties clearly are torn between the district and his employer, the Timothy L. Johnson Academy charter school. Yet Terry hasn’t had a serious challenger since he joined the board in 2001.

“If they really wanted to help, I’ve got tons of stuff they could do,” Green said of those calling for a boycott. “They could come once a week and help a student with reading. They could tutor after school or walk the halls to make sure students are behaving. I’ve got lots of things they can do to help.”

Advocating for instructional methods that target African-American students and supporting teachers and administrators would go a long way toward improving achievement.

There’s a strikingly similar model of East Allen in Eden Prairie, Minn., where a determined superintendent and school board reduced gaps between black and white students by as much as 50 percent by integrating schools, addressing cultural differences and transforming instruction. Just as the district began realizing success, however, candidates opposed to redistricting won control of the board and pushed the superintendent out, but they are sticking with the desegregation plan.

Historically, East Allen has made the same mistake of sabotaging progress to maintain the status quo. With determined advocates for the Paul Harding area, pressure to do the right thing by all students could keep the board on track. Boycotting EACS is contrary to that aim.