RACINE — Each fall, Racine Unified is pitted against nine similarly-sized Wisconsin districts for a comparison of test scores, graduation rates, attendance and more.
And each fall Unified is either the worst performer or close to it. But the district also consistently has the most students living in poverty.
Educators agree poverty unquestionably breeds lower-performing students, and that has some locally questioning if it’s fair to compare Unified to richer districts and those with less entrenched generational poverty.
“It’s not fair to compare us to an Appleton,” said Unified Superintendent Ann Laing. “I’m not even sure if it’s fair for (them to compare us to) Madison because Madison has a huge population with college degrees compared to us.”
Laing added Unified also has many more black
students than the other nine districts, a fact that leads to more talk of unfair comparisons because data show Wisconsin’s black students perform worse than other racial groups on state tests.
“African-American students have not been successful,” Laing said. “We have to do something to address that.”
The district is working on strategies to better engage black students, Laing said. As for poverty, it’s not a problem the district can solve alone, she said.
Poverty makes a difference
About three-fifths of Racine Unified students come from lower-income families, according to the “Comparative Analysis of the Racine Unified School District” report released this month by the Milwaukee-based Public Policy Forum, a nonpartisan, nonprofit research entity.
The report is released annually and compares the 10 largest Wisconsin school districts, excluding Milwaukee because it’s so much bigger than the rest. Racine Unified is among those 10, as are Green Bay, Janesville and Waukesha.
Though the districts vary in enrollment from about 27,000 students to about 10,000, all 10 are used for comparison because it provides a “more accurate” sample size, said Public Policy Forum President Rob Henken.
“The larger the sample size the better,” Henken said. But he cautioned, “Without question you have to analyze academic achievement in the context of demographics including poverty levels. ... And we do that. There is all sorts of demographic information in the report.”
Take the poverty data in the report, for example. It shows Racine Unified has the most impoverished students, 60.7 percent, and Waukesha has the least, 34.7 percent.
“Sixty percent poverty districtwide, that’s a tough, tough thing to deal with,” said Waukesha Superintendent Todd Gray, explaining poverty absolutely makes a difference in student achievement.
With relatively little poverty, his district’s test scores often ranked in the top four among the districts compared in this year’s report. Meanwhile, Racine ranks last in all but one testing category.
The poverty rates make that contrast expected — but it’s less expected that Racine students do markedly worse when compared to Green Bay, which has 57.1 percent of students living in poverty, and Janesville, which has 55.3 percent in poverty.
Racine’s lower scores happen even though all three districts use similar strategies to increase student achievement. They all analyze data to evaluate programs and identify struggling children; they all give those strugglers more help; and they all have teachers collaborate and share best teaching practices, according to administrators from each district.
Despite the similarities, Unified has lower scores, likely because poverty in Racine is both generational — which “has a huge impact on parents (not) encouraging their kids to believe that school is important” — and also new, Laing said.
“Another level of poverty is people who are new to poverty who used to be working class, middle class and now don’t have jobs,” Laing said. “Racine has a higher jobless rate than those communities.”
Fixing that cannot be under schools’ purview, Laing said. Businesses and the community must address the reasons for poverty.
Meanwhile Unified will educate poor students “the best we can,” she said. The district will stay the course with current strategies, the same ones working in Green Bay and Janesville.
Unified must reach out to blacks
Unified will also work on how educators teach black students.
The district has a significantly higher black population than the nine districts it gets compared to, a concern since black students across the state generally have lower state testing scores than their white and Hispanic peers.
“I’m not sure why it’s a huge issue here and I actually don’t care about the reason,” Laing said. “We just have to do something.”
The district has been working on “culturally responsive” teaching where educators take students’ backgrounds into account. This week Laing also sent six staff to Nashville, Tenn., for the National Alliance of Black School Educators’ annual conference. The goal is to recruit more black teachers and also come back with ideas about how to educate black kids, Laing said.
“If we ever expect to improve our overall test scores,” she said, “we have to address what we’re doing with African-American kids.”
Maybe then the comparisons, no matter how fair, will paint a different picture.