By the time James G. Merrill became superintendent of Virginia Beach (Va.) City Public Schools (VBCPS) in 2006, there wasn't much to improve statistically. The district ranked first in reading proficiency among the neighboring seven cities and first on the combined SAT; all schools had earned full Standards of Learning (SOL) accreditation from the Virginia Department of Education; and even the relationship between its elected school board, the community and administrators was harmonious.
"It's always been my nature to praise success but look for ways to improve," admits Merrill. Amid the district's stellar overall performance was an elephant in the room that Merrill soon learned needed to be addressed: a large racial achievement gap between Caucasian and African-American students. The district's disaggregated assessment data— including graduation rates, participation in advanced coursework, and state and national assessments—revealed that black males in particular were performing well below their white male counterparts.
"Racial achievement gaps weren't new concepts in 2006," says Merrill, whose district is 55.8 percent Caucasian, 27.3 percent African-American, 6 percent Hispanic, and 5.7 percent Asian. "Everyone across the nation had finally started talking about them front and center."
Developing A Strategic Plan
Merrill and his board developed "Compass to 2015: A Strategic Plan for Student Success" to encourage the community to address raising student achievement, with the achievement gap between Caucasian and African-American male students as the third of five points highlighted.
"The watershed moment in Dr. Merrill's tenure was the creation and preliminary execution of Compass to 2015," says Dan Edwards, VBCPS school board chairman since 1998. Merrill says that what began as a straightforward program to create a strategic plan morphed into a two-year districtwide research campaign involving parents, students, teachers and the business community. "I learned that there were shortcomings in the community by listening to groups that had felt disenfranchised," he says. "When you listened to what kids experienced, it was a lack of a personal relationship with teachers. They were saying, 'By second semester, some teachers still don't know my name.'"
Creating a New Office
To liaise between internal and external stakeholders on issues of equity, Merrill developed the Office of Equity Affairs and hired Esther Monclova-Johnson as director, who previously served in similar positions for District of Columbia Public Schools. "The director has played a major role in shaping the strategic plan, and serves as a co-chair for Strategic Objective 3, which addresses the necessity of closing academic achievement gaps," says Merrill.
During her tenure thus far, Monclova- Johnson has established the district's Equity Council; worked with the human resources department on recruitment and retention of a diverse workforce; facilitated community outreach and mentoring programs such as Daywatch, which partners with a "Men of Faith" group to help elementary African-American male students suspended for bad behavior; and held "Candid Conversations about Race" (CCR) with staff to examine how race relationships affect student achievement.
Although achievement gaps remain, over the past three years the district has eliminated the double-digit gap between African-American males and their Caucasian peers in reading at both the eighthgrade and high-school levels, based on statewide testing, and reduced the gap in math in certain grades. In addition, both the overall graduation rate and the percentage of African-American males successfully completing an advanced course continue to increase, thanks to the efforts of Merrill and his administration to address racial equity issues.
Jennifer E. Chase is a contributing writer for District Administration.