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'An ambitious vision': UVa launches new institute to address student achievement gaps

Nearly half of all students in the U.S. are performing behind their grade level in at least one subject. A new institute at the University of Virginia is planning on tackling those daunting figures and finding ways to improve K-12 education and help educators address the obstacles that face disadvantaged students.

“Education is the heartbeat of our nation, and we need to make sure that the heart is strong so that all these other parts are strong: our economy, our democracy, our society,” Kimberly J. Robinson, a UVa law professor and the inaugural director of the Education Rights Institute, told The Daily Progress. “The very social fabric of our country really depends on a strong education system, and so we’re really harming ourselves when we don’t provide all students a high-quality education.”

Achievement gaps dividing race and economic class have been reported in school districts across the country. In Virginia, only 56% of Black, Latino and Hispanic students were found to be proficient in their English studies, according to 2023 numbers; those numbers stand in stark contrast to the 86% of Asian students and 80% of White students who were found to be proficient. The data are similar in mathematics, where 47% of Black students and 50% of Hispanic or Latino students were found proficient, while 84% of their Asian counterparts and 75% of their White counterparts were found proficient.

“Students from low-income households, students in rural and some inner-city school districts, and many students from racial minority groups often receive lower-quality educational opportunities,” Robinson said. “That might mean less access to advanced coursework, lower funding, less experienced and qualified teachers. So, because of that, what we’re doing at the institute is identifying the different elements of a high-quality education — whether it’s facilities, teacher quality, curriculum access — and then we’re highlighting the resources that are available at the federal level to help address these challenges.”

The new institute, part of UVa’s School of Law, was born out of a conversation with “an anonymous philanthropist,” said Robinson, who previously served as an attorney with the General Counsel’s Office of the U.S. Department of Education and represented school districts at the Hogan Lovells law firm.

“As the conversation continued, the philanthropist asked me what did I think was possible in education, and I said, ‘Well, for you many things are possible, given your economic position investing in education,’ and so I basically pitched the idea to them that I was interested in launching an institute that would focus on three areas,” she recounted.

“The first goal is to elevate scholarship about a federal right to education and the absence of any guarantee in the United States for high-quality education that enables students to be college- and career-ready and engaged citizens,” Robinson said.

The second goal is to recognize the elements of a high-quality education, research opportunity gaps “based on race, class and ZIP code” and identify federal resources available to help achieve a high-quality education.

The third goal is to help school districts understand their obligations under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Title VI prohibits discrimination on the grounds of race, color or national origin of recipients of federal financial assistance.

Thanks to a $4.9 million gift from said anonymous philanthropist, Robinson’s plans are coming to fruition. Staff have been hired and the institute’s first projects are already in development.

“We are going to be producing a video newsletter where we will take research findings and make them into short videos so that they’re easily digestible by the public, and then we’ll pair that with reports that synthesize research about issues related to a high-quality education, Title VI and issues related to a federal right to education,” Robinson said.

Part of the funding was used to hire three new staff members, including Sarah Beach and Helen Min, recent graduates from UVa’s School of Education.

“They are going to conduct research, publish reports and support the work of the institute to identify elements of a high-quality education, as well as opportunity gaps in those elements and what federal support resources are available to help,” Robinson said.

GeDá Jones Herbert has been brought on to serve as the institute’s director of programming. Herbert, an experienced civil rights attorney, will be leading the work that helps school districts understand their obligations under Title VI, Robinson said.

Other funding will go towards the institute’s research assistants and the institute’s upcoming Oct. 16 formal launch event, according to Robinson.

University leaders, including President Jim Ryan and Law School Dean Risa Golubuff, will be speaking at the official launch.

Spencer Foundation President Na’ilah Suad Nasir, whose group offers grant programs “to transform educational systems for equity,” will be delivering the keynote address.

There will be two panels — one featuring Democratic U.S. Rep. Jennifer McClellan of Virginia’s 4th District — discussing nationwide educational opportunity gaps, their impact, research and data, and the laws and policy reforms to address them.

“It’s a grand vision, an ambitious vision, but the ultimate hope is to bring together research and scholarship about these topics in ways that school districts can actually utilize to improve the educational opportunities for students,” Robinson said.

Source: www.dailyprogress.com

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