Black students scored just below the district average in those years. Almost 40% of Hispanic students were at or above proficiency in 2019 and a little more than 30% were at those levels in 2023. Black and Hispanic students make up about two-thirds of the school district’s enrollment, according to state data. Special education students have hovered around 15% proficiency.
Staff raised concern with increasing chronic absenteeism, showing in a presentation that third through eighth grade students absent more than two days per month scored 20 percentage points lower on English language arts than their peers.
Most metro Atlanta districts saw a drop in third grade language arts results from 2019 to 2023, but Buford, Fulton and Marietta had gains.
Advocates in Gwinnett have implored the district over the past couple of years to rethink how it teaches students to read. The advocates, many of whom are parents of dyslexic children, pushed Gwinnett to join the wave of districts and states aligning to the science of reading, which emphasizes drilling down on explicit phonemic awareness, word recognition and other techniques to improve literacy.
Gwinnett announced a plan in May of 2022 to revamp its literacy curriculum. But parent advocates have said implementation has been haphazard and too slow, leaving struggling students in limbo. They’ve criticized the use of resources and practices that aren’t aligned with the science of reading.
“Currently, we have a buffet of interventions that are arbitrarily assigned to students based on the school’s preference. They’re not high-quality, systematic, explicit instruction for reading language and writing,” Missy Purcell, one of the advocates and a parent, said at Thursday’s meeting.
Earlier in the day, DeNelle West, Gwinnett’s chief learning officer, said the district is developing targets for implementation of science of reading training for elementary teachers this school year. She also said the district will identify the foundational knowledge areas that students continue to struggle in since the pandemic for additional reinforcement.
Jewelle Harmon, chief accountability officer, noted students are still affected by the pandemic. She said each year of learning sets the foundation for the subsequent years, so a student who experienced learning loss during virtual learning could face compounding challenges as they progress through school.
School board members previously challenged staff to confront the district’s challenges head-on and commended the information provided and some of the actions laid out while making additional data requests. Board Chair Tarece Johnson-Morgan called Thursday for an equity audit to assess the needs of different students and schools and see how those needs are being met.
Superintendent Calvin Watts and other staff said more data could be discussed at an upcoming retreat, along with the audit depending on board consensus.
Johnson-Morgan pressed staff to think specifically about how it could help Black and Hispanic students, along with engaging families that primarily speak a language other than English.
Vice Chair Steve Knudsen noted that students receiving free lunch scored lower than average on Milestones and asked for a deeper look into that gap and ways to address it.
Board member Adrienne Simmons said it was hard to see where Gwinnett stands without more context.
“We are a world-class organization, and to be world-class means that we have to compete outside of Gwinnett,” Simmons said. “I look forward to us engaging in conversation around how we’re doing compared to other Atlanta metro area districts that have similar demographics,” noting that others have seen growth where Gwinnett has not.
Correction: An earlier version of this article had an incorrect date of when the school district revamped its literacy curriculum.