Illinois report card reveals achievement gap at GBS

Gigi Cepeda, co-editor-in-chief

Senior Yulissa Gonzales was always the only Latina in her AP classes, feeling alone and wondering “Why am I the only one?” English Teacher Blanca Ascencio didn’t read a book until she was a sophomore in high school. Her parents were always working and she simply didn’t find the stories interesting; there were no stories like hers.

There is an achievement gap between white students and Latino students at South.  Hispanic students met SAT standards 39.5 percent less frequently, according to the Illinois Report Card, published annually by the State Board of Education. The achievement gap reaches beyond SAT scores, as fewer Latino students are enrolled in AP classes.

“Since I started high school, I was the only Latina [in my classes] – always,” Gonzalez said. “I remember I would cry to my mom, ‘I don’t have any friends in my classes and I can’t relate to anyone.’ I felt so alone and so apart from the whole class that I would just hate coming to school.”

Thirteen percent of South’s student body is Hispanic. Gonzalez was one of 88 Hispanic students at South taking AP classes last year, while 610 white students sat beside her, according to the Report Card.

Gonzalez says she thinks counselors and teachers need to be more receptive to student suggestions in order to place them in  higher-level courses.

“Just look at the actual facts,” Gonzalez said. “That we are capable of going to higher levels. They’re putting us in lower levels that we shouldn’t be in.”

Dr. Lara Cummings, assistant principal of student services, says counselors encourage students to challenge themselves, but advise not to take courses they foresee being overwhelming.

Gonzalez also believes English curriculums should include a wider variety of perspectives. Ascencio says there are attempts to broaden the voices in required readings, such as the inclusion of The Book of Unknown Americans in her junior classes. However, she says there is still room for improvement; by including more Latino voices, more students could have stories like Ascencio’s: she became an English teacher because of The House on Mango Street, which taught her to love reading, she says.

“I am testimony to [the fact that] when you see yourself in literature, when you see your story and see that it’s published and that there’s a Latina author, and she sets her story in Chicago and it’s brilliant and amazing, it opens all these new possibilities and gives you confidence,” Ascencio said.

An achievement gap also exists between low-income and non-low-income students at South. Last year, 909 non-low-income students and 124 low-income students took AP classes. Twenty percent of South’s student body is considered low-income, meeting criteria that includes living in a household that receives public aid or having a household income that meets USDA guidelines to receive free or reduced-price meals, according to the Report Card.

Principal Dr. Lauren Fagel says the administration hopes to see the achievement gap close, but chooses to focus on the opportunity gap rather than test scores, referring to the disparity in access to resources for low-income students.

Attempts to reduce inequity between low-income and non-low-income students include the program Titans Helping Titans, which provides the supplies needed for academics and extracurriculars, according to Fagel. Titans Helping Titans offers school supplies free of charge and holds winterwear drives, among other services.

Josh Koo, assistant principal of student activities, believes that student success starts with meeting basic needs.

Senior Toni Zheleva says she has seen attempts by the administration to help low-income students through providing supplies and reduced-rate tickets for school events. However, she says she believes the administration needs to do more to improve the educational opportunities of low-income students.

“There needs to be consideration within the district of those students who might need more help in school, might need to be offered assistance more from teachers themselves and really focus on getting the education in the classroom rather than expecting them to do things outside the classroom,” Zheleva said.

Zheleva is especially concerned with lack of access to ACT tutoring, she says, as, the discounted price of $50 for South’s test prep could still pose a financial hardship for these students.

Zheleva says that without these changes, students will not be able to earn the grades they need to go to the best schools— those that will provide the most financial aid.

Fagel says the administration has drafted a survey to measure increases in equity throughout the district, which they hope to distribute annually to all students starting this spring. The survey is being created with the goal that 100 percent of South students will “feel like a valued and integrated member of our community,” according to Fagel.