Kimball Middle in Elgin Credit: Photo by Jason Reblando

In Wheaton Consolidated Unit School District 200, nearly all 900 teachers are white. So are most of the students in this affluent suburban community, located 25 miles west of Chicago in well-heeled DuPage County.

But that’s changing.

Wheaton’s schools are considerably more diverse today than they were just five years ago. White enrollment is down 10 percent. African-American and Latino enrollment is up 13 percent. Minority students, including Asians, now comprise nearly a quarter of Wheaton’s 13,600 student population, and their numbers continue to grow.

Wealthier districts like Wheaton have attracted families, in part, with the sterling academic reputations of their schools. Yet in a Catalyst Chicago analysis of 2007 scores on state reading tests, Wheaton posts one of the widest achievement gaps between white and minority elementary students in the six-county metro Chicago area.

Black 3rd-graders score an average of 34 points lower than white 3rd-graders; black 8th-graders, an average of 27 points lower. Latino students—the fastest-growing demographic group in Wheaton and the Chicago area overall—score about 16 points behind white students.

Wheaton is not an anomaly. In elementary school districts throughout the area, black 3rd-graders scored an average of 23 points lower in reading in 2007, compared to white 3rd-graders; for Latino students, scores averaged 16 points lower. The gaps are similar in 8th grade.

By the numbers

In 2007, researchers at the Consortium on Chicago School Research found evidence that CPS did a better job than the rest of the state in raising the achievement of black and Latino elementary students. Catalyst Chicago adopted a similar approach to examine achievement gaps between students of color and their white classmates in the six-county Chicago metropolitan area. Our analysis of 2007 state reading scores in suburban elementary school districts found:

  • In 82 percent of suburban districts, black 3rd-graders score higher than their CPS counterparts. In 8th grade, however, just 46 percent are ahead of the city.
  • Results for Latino students are similar. In 3rd grade, 78 percent of suburban districts are ahead of CPS. In 8th grade, just 40 percent are ahead. 
  • Wealthier suburban districts tend to have the widest achievement gaps overall.
  • The achievement gap between black and white students is narrowing at a slightly faster pace than the gap between whites and Latinos.

Why this matters

Communities in the six-county Chicagoland area are becoming more diverse as lower-income families of color move in.

  • Suburban school districts are searching for ways to provide an equitable education for African-American and Latino children.
  • Under the No Child Left Behind Act, districts are responsible for raising the achievement of low-income and minority youngsters.
  • Easing the culture clash between white teachers and African-American and Latino students may be just as important to closing the achievement gap as providing better instruction.

This glaring achievement gap shows that once-homogenous, solidly middle-class districts are struggling to meet the instructional and cultural needs of African-American and Latino students, many of whom come from low-income families. With the federal No Child Left Behind Act putting pressure on districts to serve all students, schools in the metro area now face the same daunting challenges that vex educators in Chicago—such as raising the literacy skills of students who are several grades behind and teaching students who speak little or no English.

Most of the district officials Catalyst spoke with are groping for ways to address the academic divide, noting interventions such as after-school tutoring, revamping curriculum and differentiating instruction to meet the needs of all students. Such steps are important, but not enough, says one expert.

What districts need first is a solid commitment to raising the achievement of minority students. “You have to see a clear vision coming from the schools and the district that closing achievement gaps is a top priority,” says Ross Wiener, vice-president of programs and policy for the Education Trust. “In suburbs where this [issue] is new, there can be subtle ways in which ‘those [minority] students’ can be scapegoated.”

“It’s something that every school district wrestles with,” says School Board President Thomas Verbeke of Will County’s Crete-Monee Community Unit School District 201, where the problem of creeping enrollment—freshmen who show up to register for high school after the year starts, a common occurrence in Chicago—has surfaced in recent years. The district now sends all late registrants to a temporary transitional program before enrolling them in regular classes.

“We’re working very, very hard to close the [achievement] gap because it’s something that needs to be worked on,” Verbeke adds. “Every one of these kids is a priority.” In Crete, black and Latino 3rd- and 8th-graders score from 10 to 18 points lower than white classmates, Catalyst’s analysis found.

In Wheaton, district spokesman Robert Rammer says schools have added extended-day and summer school programs; a program that provides books for students who cannot afford their own; an expanded bilingual program; and a policy that allows students whose families move outside attendance boundaries to stay in their original school. Teacher training is also taking place.

With the lion’s share of attention focused on big-city districts like Chicago, suburban communities “get a pass on a lot of this stuff,” says Paul Zavitkovsky of the University of Illinois at Chicago, who has conducted research comparing minority student achievement in the city to the suburbs. No Child Left Behind, he notes, “is shining some light on self-satisfied suburban communities.”

Gary Orfield, an expert on school segregation and co-director of the Civil Rights Project at the University of California-Los Angeles, says suburban districts can’t ignore growing diversity and “have to find a way to talk about it positively.”

Parent involvement and empowerment is also critical, but for children of color is often missing in the suburbs, says Zavitkovsky. “Non-white and poor communities don’t have the same kind of voice as they do in the city,” he says, explaining that too few blacks and Latinos serve on suburban school boards or work as suburban school administrators.

The top priority for raising minority achievement is to believe that kids can learn, Zavitkovsky adds. All-white administrations, who have little or no experience with children of color, can too easily believe that students who come in behind will stay behind, he believes.

“It’s pretty easy for the school-based professionals to say, ‘You know, we really can’t expect much more,’” Zavitkovsky observes.

Catalyst’s analysis found evidence suggesting that suburban districts are making some progress in closing the achievement gap for black students, whose scores are lowest overall. But for Latinos, the analysis found little progress. (Because of changes to the state’s achievement tests, Catalyst could not track the same group of students over time.)

For black students, the 8th-grade reading gap is nearly four points smaller than the 3rd-grade gap. For Latinos, the reading gap in 8th grade is three-tenths of a point larger.

One possible reason for the discrepancy, says one expert, is the recent dramatic increase in the suburban Latino population. Since 2004, suburban communities have enrolled more Latino students than Chicago, and school districts simply weren’t prepared for the dramatic shift, says Sylvia Puente, director of the Center for Metropolitan Chicago Initiatives at the University of Notre Dame’s Institute for Latino Studies.

Schools don’t have a lot of knowledge about how to teach “in a culturally competent way,” Puente adds, but districts are making an effort to learn how to do so.

One effort to raise the bar on cultural competency is a new program out of Northern Illinois University that takes science teachers to Mexico to study geological formations. The goal is to develop lesson plans that will be of greater interest to students of Mexican heritage, and help establish bonds between them and their mostly-white teachers.

“Just making that connection, ‘Here’s someone that understands my experience,’ that seems to be important,” says M. Cecil Smith, a professor of educational psychology at Northern, who is involved with the program. “You’re always going to have students in classrooms with teachers who have different racial, gender or class backgrounds. But you can do things to narrow that gap.”

Lack of teacher training may also be an issue. “We have some wonderful universities in Chicagoland, but not too many have English as a Second Language and bilingual programs, and they need to be expanded,” says Margo Gottlieb, director of assessment and evaluation for the Illinois Resource Center, which helps schools develop effective learning environments for English-language learners. 

Most of the district officials Catalyst spoke with listed interventions—such as after-school tutoring, professional development and diversity training—that are aimed at helping the lowest-scoring children, usually African-American.  However, districts also noted the challenge of raising the achievement of children who are still learning the language, as well as the perennial shortage of bilingual teachers.

“It’s tough,” says School Board President Grady Rivers Jr. of Maywood-Melrose Park-Broadview District 89, a district that was 58 percent African American in 2003 but is now almost evenly split between Latino and black students.

“One of the unfair things about No Child Left Behind is that everybody’s going to be graded on the same curve, but it’s tough when you’ve got students who are still learning the language,” Rivers adds.

Wealth helps, hurts

Overall, Catalyst’s analysis found that children of color posted higher reading scores in districts that spent more than $8,000 per pupil from local revenue. But their white classmates score significantly higher as well, making the achievement gap particularly glaring in these more well-to-do communities.

In 8th grade, average 2007 reading scores were 4 points higher for both black and Latino students in districts that spent more than $8,000 per pupil—but white students scored 7 points higher in these wealthier districts. In 3rd grade, the gap between higher- and lower-spending districts is even more significant.

Evidence of this is apparent in Glen Ellyn’s Community Consolidated School District 89 in DuPage County, which has one of the largest achievement gaps in the metro area.

Districtwide, white enrollment has declined by 8 points since 2003, while black and Latino enrollment have increased about 2 points each. The percentage of low-income students, though small, has increased from 5 percent to 11 percent.

Valencia A. Breckenridge, an African-American parent whose children attended Glen Ellyn elementary schools and are now enrolled at Glenbard South High School, says she and her husband moved to the area because of its high-performing schools, and they have been pleased with the education their children received. Still, she points out, the district’s growing diversity—economic as well as racial—is bringing new challenges.

At Glen Crest Middle School, for instance, conflict has been simmering between new African-American students and white teachers. (Districtwide, 3 percent of teachers are Asian, less than one percent are African American and none are Latino.)

“The new kids were overwhelmed, there were no black teachers, [white] teachers were struggling, and the kids were saying they felt disrespected,” says Breckenridge, who grew up in Chicago, graduated from Bowen High and earned degrees from the University of Kansas and Northwestern University.

Breckenridge stepped in and approached school administrators about starting a support group for minority children, which evolved into a “breakfast club” that meets every Tuesday morning so that minority students can discuss issues such as self-esteem and forming friendships with children of another race.

Teachers sometimes join the group, Breckenridge says, and administrators have supported the effort. Last summer, the group continued to meet as a book discussion group.
“Our district is becoming more diverse, and I’m excited about that,” says Breckenridge. “It’s the way of the world. It prepares kids from all races.”

Glen Crest’s story raises the issue of teacher diversity, which is sorely lacking in most of the metro area’s school districts. In 80 percent—188 of 236—of the suburban districts analyzed by Catalyst, the teaching force is at least 90 percent white. In these 188 districts, however, just 70 percent of students are white, while 15 percent are Latino, 5 percent are African American and 7 percent Asian.

To bridge the culture divide, six officials from mostly-white districts that were interviewed by Catalyst noted that teachers were undergoing diversity training.

In Glen Ellyn, professional development has focused on the work of University of Virginia education professor Carol Tomlinson, who promotes differentiated teaching.

“Teachers need to understand what strategies they can put in place to meet the various needs of our diverse learners,” says Jamie Reilly, assistant superintendent for learning. “Everybody’s learning styles are different.”

Glen Ellyn teachers have also visited classrooms in Chicago to observe teaching strategies that might be more effective in diverse classrooms. And during one professional development session, the trainer, a Latina, modeled a less-formal teaching approach that she told teachers could be more effective with children from different cultures: The trainer gathered the group into a circle for discussion, rather than lecturing from the front of the room.

 “We have in our mind a very stereotypical mindset of what school should look like and it’s vastly different from what some of our kids bring into that environment,” says Reilly.  “We have to not only bridge the differences but honor and celebrate diversity.”

In Wheaton, diversity awareness is emerging, says spokesman Rammer.

Teachers recently began to study the book “We Can’t Teach What We Don’t Know,” which aims to help white educators understand and address cultural differences between themselves and children of color.

The goal, Rammer says, is “to provide instruction based on student needs rather than what is convenient for instructors, [and] build sensitivity to the issues that students bring to school every day.”

Interns Rebecca Harris and Jennifer Crespo contributed.

Contact John Myers at (312) 673-3874 or

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