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Marine magnet school narrows achievement gap

By Deborah Straszheim

Publication: The Day

Published November 17. 2013 4:00AM
Minority Marine Science 10th-graders bested their white classmates in math on state test this spring

Groton - Minority students at the Marine Science Magnet High School outperformed their classmates in statewide math tests, and the student body as a whole bested the state average and performed better than many high schools in eastern Connecticut in every subject.

The achievement gap between white and minority students has persisted in Connecticut year after year, with black and Hispanic students lagging significantly behind their non-minority peers.

In Groton, 66 to 70 10th-graders at the magnet school took the Connecticut Academic Performance Test last spring in math, reading, writing and science, with the number depending on the day. Of the total, 24 identified themselves as minority students: four as black, 12 Hispanic, one Asian, three American Indian and four of two or more races.

The state reports statistics for subgroups of 20 or more, so the Department of Education has not issued figures for each of the minority groups. The magnet school provided the results.

White students at the school outperformed their minority peers in reading, writing and science.

However, math results told a different story. In that subject, 87.8 percent of minority students at the school scored at or above goal and 95.8 percent scored at proficiency or better. "Goal" is the threshold set by the state and "proficiency" refers to the federal performance standard.

By comparison, 83.3 percent of white students at the school scored at goal or better in math, and 92.9 percent scored at proficiency or better.

Principal Nicholas Spera said he believes the data is significant.

"We had teachers crying when they found out the CAPT score results," Spera said, "because some of the students did come in with weaknesses."

The school's minority students also performed better than the state average in every subject and category except one.

In addition, Marine Science Magnet School students as a whole outperformed high school students in Stonington, Waterford, Montville, Groton, New London, Ledyard and Norwich in most or all subjects, test results showed.

The Connecticut Coalition for Achievement Now, which advocates for equity and improvement in the public schools, reported earlier this month that "Connecticut maintained its worst-in-the nation achievement gap," citing fourth- and eighth-grade National Assessment of Educational Progress data.

The coalition compared data across the state for white and minority students as well as low-income students and those whose first language is not English. Black, Latino and low-income students scored an average of three grades behind their white peers, the coalition said.

"The unfortunate reality is that not every kid in Connecticut lives in a neighborhood with a good public school," Brett Broesder, coalition communications director, said.

Luck of the draw

Savannah Cordova, 16, a junior, said she came to the magnet school from New London public schools, where she said she was getting Cs and an occasional a D or an F.

"I did bad," she said. "I guess, like, I didn't do my work. Nobody did their work." She said she wasn't prepared for difficult high school classes and almost gave up. But, she said, teachers at the Marine Science School helped and supported her.

She made the honor role for the first time this quarter.

"I just want to get out of the projects and have an actual house," she said. "And not have to rely on anyone else."

Spera, the principal, said the school tries to foster relationships between teachers and students and emphasizes effort and grit.

Jacob Hollis, 16, of New London said he always did well in school, but the mind-set at the magnet school makes a difference.

"Here it's rigorous, so it tests you," he said.

The school enrolls 254 students in grades 9 through 12, and has an average class size of 14. Most students are from Norwich, Groton and New London, though some travel from as far away as Killingworth.

Students apply but are chosen by lottery, so the school enrolls students of all abilities. Those who took the exam in March had attended the magnet school for a little less than two years by that time, Spera said.

All students are assigned a teacher their freshman year, then meet with that teacher and about a dozen other students in an advisory group twice a week for 40 minutes. The group stays intact for all four years of high school, and discusses academics as well as issues like bullying.

This is the third year that social studies teacher Annie Hanrahan has been meeting with the same 13 students.

"Our school operates on this great foundation of relationships," she said, and on the school philosophy that "effort creates ability."

"We believe it and the kids believe it," she said.

Chemistry teacher Phoebe Rockholz said she tells students failure is not an option.

"I tell them I'm not going to let them fail," she said.

During January and February, right before testing, the school used the time set aside for advisory group meetings for "CAPT Boot Camp," which gave students extra instruction in reading and math on a rotating basis.

Hollis said students mentor each other and feel comfortable going to teachers.

"It's all about having help through high school," he said. "It's hard."

Cordova said she still has bad days from time to time. "But then I get over it," she said. She's taking chemistry, geometry, U.S. history, aquaculture, English, marine science and Spanish.

She defines "grit" this way: "You try non-stop. You don't give up. Ever."

d.straszheim@theday.com

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