This chart, shared with the Portland School Board Sept. 3, shows the achievement gap experienced by disadvantaged students, particularly when it comes to post-secondary education success. Courtesy / Portland Public Schools

PORTLAND — New data shared with school district leaders last week revealed what they already know: academic achievement is most often tied to family income and background.

But School Board Chairman Roberto Rodriguez now says he wants to see the School Department approach the issue with a “sense of urgency” and heightened awareness of the structural hurdles to student success.

At its Sept. 3 meeting, the School Board received a report on the post-secondary accomplishments of Portland students. With the help of a grant from the Barr Foundation and the Boston-based consulting firm EY-Parthenon, the district was able to track the academic achievements of the Class of 2016 from eighth grade through the second year of college.

Melea Nall, left, assistant superintendent for teaching and learning, and Barrett Wilkinson, right, director of equity, speak to the Portland School Board Sept. 3. Courtesy / Portland Public Schools

What the report indicated, according to Superintendent of Schools Xavier Botana, “is what we already know. That family income and background are the key determinants for student success in the Portland Public Schools and beyond.” The findings, he added, make it clear that the district “needs to take action to remove institutional barriers” for at-risk students.

“There’s nothing new here,” Botana said, “every one of our data sets says the same thing.”

Longtime board member Marnie Morrione agreed, and said receiving the report “feels like the movie ‘Groundhog Day.'”

Both she and Rodriguez said last week that they want to see the School Department make strides toward eliminating the achievement gap experienced by at-risk students, with Morrione saying, “we need to consistently say this is our priority, especially during budget season.”

Areas of specific focus include easing the transition from eighth grade to ninth grade with additional freshman programming designed to better support students, said Melea Nalli, the assistant superintendent for teaching and learning with the School Department.

The district will also work on boosting attendance for at-risk students and work on encouraging students of color and those who qualify for free and reduced lunch to not only meet, but exceed grade-level expectations so they’ll feel more comfortable and at ease in signing up for advanced classes, she said.

Nalli said the district would also put special emphasis on helping students prepare for post-secondary success. She said that’s important because even when at-risk students enroll in college they often don’t persist, with many dropping out after their first year.

Botana said in his time with the district, the School Board has been “strong on advocating and pushing for an equity-based agenda, but we need more focus on direct interventions and getting students to grade-level skills if we’re going to change these outcomes.”

In following the Class of 2016, the district’s equity coordinator, Barrett Wilkinson, said while there were many factors that seemed to influence a student’s overall academic achievement, there was a clear correlation between attendance and grade point average.

In looking at key indicators of students who are on track for success in high school and beyond, Wilkinson said “we can see how strongly attendance matters.”

Wilkinson said other early warning indicators include being suspended one or more days, failing one or more core classes and failing to meet minimum expectations on standardized testing.

“For those with early warning indicators in eighth grade, it was very challenging for them to get back on track,” Wilkinson added.

Both Nalli and Wilkinson said the district sees the greatest disparity in academic achievement – both in high school and college – based on racial identity, a student’s eligibility for free and reduced lunch and whether they are English language learners.

Nalli told the School Board that 69 percent of the Class of 2016 enrolled in either a four- or two-year college, but only 53 percent persisted into the second year of college.

The data for disadvantaged students was even worse, with only 61 percent pursuing a post-secondary education and less than half of those going back for a second year of school, Nalli and Wilkinson said.

The data also showed that there was a significant difference between white and Asian students, who mostly enrolled in four-year programs, and students of color who mostly enrolled in a two-year program if they chose to pursue post-secondary education.

And Wilkinson said the data also clearly shows that students who have access to advanced coursework in high school do better in college. But again, the study favored students who successfully completed the more advanced classes offered.

“Ultimately,” Nalli said, the district “wants to (better understand) what we can do to contribute to post-secondary success.” She said the report “helps to illuminate the areas that need focus and extra urgency.”

“(W)e need to better understand the readiness and access gaps,” Nalli said, “to better understand what students need to get to and through college. We want students to graduate from the Portland Public Schools, but the diploma must reflect true preparation to succeed” after high school.

Comments are not available on this story.