ELK GROVE — Middle school principal Philip Moore knows Hispanic and black students typically have lower scores on standardized tests than white or Asian students, so he called segregated meetings for parents to discuss how to prepare for the tests.
Because of the lower scores, Moore said, some Hispanic and black parents may feel uncomfortable talking about them in front of white or Asian parents.
But in a state in which Hispanics make up a third of California’s 35 million residents and in which a single school district might speak 100 different languages, such a plan is segregating parents and students when it should be integrating them, critics say.
Asians make up about 11 percent and blacks represent seven percent of the state’s population.
Before settling on the divided meetings, Moore said he spoke to about 20 parents of students at T.R. Smedberg Middle School. Parents and school officials will discuss test scores and grade point averages, and if scheduling is a problem, parents can attend any meeting, regardless of race.
Because such meetings are so new to education — officials and analysts nationwide said they had heard very little about them outside California — the education community outside Elk Grove knows little about them. There is, however, a vague feeling of uncertainty.
Instead of bringing students and parents together to produce higher test scores and better education, the meetings may backfire, said Jan Domene, president of the California Parent Teacher Association. “You don’t want kids to feel it’s OK to do (segregate),” and if school officials see segregation expanding, they should stop the meetings.
Fifty-one percent of Smedberg students who took last year’s tests were white, state records show, while 15 percent were Hispanic, 14 percent Asian and 11 percent black. White and Asian students scored similarly well in the ranking, outscoring Hispanic and black students by more than 75 points.
Overall, the school posted an Academic Performance Index score of 730, with the state-set performance target being 800. The scores are based largely on the annual Stanford 9 test, which shows how individual and groups of California students in second through 11th grades are doing in comparison to other students in the United States.
The API scores can determine if schools receive extra state money and measure overall performance, so there’s increased pressure on schools to improve their scores.
That’s where the meetings at Smedberg come in, Elk Grove officials said.
Smaller groups make parents more comfortable, Moore said, adding that 53 different languages are spoken in his district south of Sacramento. “We want to get real honest answers.”
Also, Moore said, students told him that if they had low scores they would be embarrassed to talk about their scores in front of a large group of people.
“I think stereotypes could be reinforced in a big group environment,” Moore said.
Elk Grove Unified School District Superintendent Dave Gordon said Smedberg’s seventh and eighth grade students understand the meetings are not “to segregate the parents” but to gather information.
Some parents complained after first hearing about the meetings, Moore said, but most have understood his intent.
“The meetings show the school is sensitive to the differences (among test scores),” said Deborah Thomas-Smith, a black parent with an eight-grade son at Smedberg. “It should be the norm that those unique individuals with unique problems get together.”
Sometimes separation can make sense, said Gregory Hodge, leader of California Tomorrow, an Oakland-based advocacy group promoting culture and education. Some immigrant groups often feel intimidated by large groups and authority figures, such as principals and police officers.
Still, segregated meetings “might unconsciously set up more division than you intend,” said Hodge, who is also a member of the Oakland Unified School District board. He added that a couple years ago, a middle school in Oakland segregated parents based on race so that they could discuss after school programs openly.
In the end, said Terry Francke, general counsel of the Sacramento-based California First Amendment Coalition, it’s up to Moore to decide.
“He can hold meetings with anyone he pleases,” Francke said. “If he believes there is a problem or issue more prevalent or relevant to one racial group in the school then I don’t think anyone would question his ability.”
Gordon isn’t, saying Moore has his complete support. “It’s well worth trying different strategies.”