I became an education writer, in large part, because I attended the public schools in Ossining, New York. Due to a unique integration/busing program that has been maintained throughout the decades, even as other districts reverted to segregated neighborhood schools, the district is currently 39 percent Hispanic, 38 percent white, 18 percent black, and 5 percent Asian. About a third of students are eligible for reduced-price or free lunch.
So day after day for the 13 most formative years of my life, I (and every other kid in the Ossining schools) saw up close the achievement gap between middle class, mostly white students and everyone else, and the ways in which the school system attempted to fight the problem while, in some cases, exacerbating it.
Yesterday the New York Times profiled Ossining's nationally recognized science research program, which was just getting off the ground when I was in high school. Peter Applebome makes a very important point about how such excellence can coexist with inequality:
It would be nice if a fabulous science research program translates to a fabulous school and district, but Ossining’s overall test scores do not compare with those of the most successful districts. Its achievement gap between largely affluent whites and less affluent minorities, who make up a majority of the district, remains stubbornly wide. This year’s Intel semifinalists come overwhelmingly on the favored side of the demographic divide. In the most recent Regents tests, 11 percent of Ossining students scored above 85 on the chemistry test. In Scarsdale, 65 percent did.
But then, there are more than a few parents in neighboring districts with higher test scores who are envious of the richer real-world experience students get in Ossining, where students come from an estimated 53 countries and speak 39 languages.
But it wouldn't be fair to say Ossining isn't struggling mightily against its achievement gap–more so now, under Superintendent Phyllis Glassman, than ever. I wrote a feature article in 2007 about the district's attempt to get more children of color into college level courses and, controversially, to provide social enrichment experiences targeted specifically at black and Hispanic boys.
These programs haven't been transformative so far. But Ossining is a great example of a district deploying many different tools in an attempt to close the achievement gap, and should be recognized for that.