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Lee's Summit School Board Shares Proof That Black Students Are Falling Behind White Students

Elle Moxley
KCUR 89.3
Lee's Summit Superintendent Dennis Carpenter, left, was a panelist at an educational equity forum Thursday night in South Kansas City.

Lee’s Summit Superintendent Dennis Carpenter is urging residents of the district to “believe the data” that shows significant achievement gaps between students of color and their white peers.

Originally the district wanted to bring in a diversity consultant to speak to the school board at their Oct. 3 meeting, but the proposed training roiled Lee’s Summit parents participating in an online discussion group. Last week they asked the school board to back up the superintendent’s assertion that white students were outperforming students of color with data.

Credit Lee's Summit R-7 School District
Black students in the Lee's Summit R-7 School District trailed their white peers in every content area on the Missouri Assessment Program, the state's standardized test.

Among the findings presented to the Board of Education this week:

  • Gaps in achievement between white students and black students on state tests existed at every grade and in every content area.
  • Black students represented 12 percent of the district’s population but 18 percent of the students qualifying for special education and just 2 percent of students identified as gifted.
  • Only 55 percent of black students passed the algebra end-of-course assessment, compared to more than 80 percent of white students.
  • White high school juniors who took the ACT received an average composite score of 22, nearly five points higher than their black peers.

Even when the district controlled for poverty, these differences persisted – among students who received free or reduced price lunch, poor white students still outperformed poor black students.

Carpenter, the district’s first black superintendent, has upset some parents with his frequent comments about educational equity. That hasn’t stopped him from talking about it.

“Equity is the notion that talent is distributed equally across all populations, but oftentimes access and opportunity are not,” Carpenter said Thursday night at an education forum in South Kansas City attended by some Lee’s Summit parents.

Another panelist, educational psychologist Melissa P. Hazley, explained that equity wasn’t Oprah handing everyone in the audience the keys to a new car.

“In an equitable situation, it wouldn’t be, ‘You get a car and you get a car and you get a car!’” she said. “Some people don’t need a car. They already have one. Instead of having an individual accumulate five cars, you would decide where that resource needs to be distributed.”

Hazley’s example got at the tension that Lee’s Summit is grappling with – whether resources will be diverted away from the district’s high achieving students and limit their potential.

“It’s difficult because if I already have a car, I might want another one,” Hazley continued. “I might feel cheated if I don’t get a second one. That’s where the hard conversation comes in about equity.”

Carpenter seized on the car analogy at once. Inequity, he said, could be inadvertently written into well-intentioned policies, such as requiring a student provide their own transportation to an afterschool enrichment activity.

“From the policymaker’s standpoint, their kid probably has a car,” he said, “and so it gets written on the form that a student must have a car to participate. That doesn’t mean a student without a car isn’t just as talented in terms of going down to an engineering firm to do an internship, but it might keep that kid from that rich, rich experience.”

Elle Moxley covers education for KCUR. You can reach her on Twitter @ellemoxley.

Elle Moxley covered education for KCUR.
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