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Durham principal shrunk achievement gap at one school, but district numbers stagnate

southwest elementary
Current Principal of Southwest Elementary, Nick Rotosky (left), poses with mentor and former Principal David Sneed (right) at Southwest Elementary in Durham, NC on Monday, Sept. 24.

With a fresh geography and geology degree in hand, David Sneed wasn’t too thrilled to start his job at Gulf and Western Industries. But before his first day, he watched "To Sir, With Love," a movie about an engineer who takes a teaching job and improves his students’ lives. 

Quickly, Sneed was convinced that teaching was his true vocation. The next day he was at the UNC School of Education, applying for the masters’ degree program.

Sneed is known as the Durham Public School principal who significantly reduced the achievement gap at Southwest Elementary in the early 2000s. 

When he took on the post in 1999, Southwest’s black students were underrepresented in the Academically and Intellectually Gifted (AIG) classes, the most advanced courses the school taught. But during his five-year tenure, the number of black fifth-graders classified as gifted increased by 25 percent. 

The success of his brief administration has been studied by those who seek to break through the stagnant achievement gap in Durham Public Schools today.

Ten years ago, almost 75 percent of white students in Durham Public Schools were proficient in their EOG tests, compared to about 33 percent for Black students and 27 percent for Hispanic students in the district who passed.

In the 2016-17 school year, the numbers were about 80, 35 and 38, respectively. 

Amid such a prevalent achievement gap in the district, news about Southwest’s high achievement rates spread quickly.

“We were just putting Band-Aids” 

While other educators were willing to accept the status quo, Sneed questioned why the achievement gap existed. The answer came from his time teaching middle schoolers. 

“They came to the grade level with different reading abilities and comprehension and issues, so I knew that was an issue that needed to be solved earlier,” Sneed said. “We were just putting Band-Aids on it in by middle school time.”

At Southwest, Sneed asked the teachers if they truly thought that these statistics represented the gifted population at their school. It was just the wake-up call the school needed.

William Darity, a professor of public policy at Duke who studies the achievement gap in the North Carolina Public School System, took notice of Sneed’s success. 

Darity’s research explores public schools’ internal segregation — what happens when classes are technically integrated, but curriculum gaps separate students by race. 

In 2001, Darity and UNC sociology professor Karolyn Tyson assessed the degree to which Black and Native American students had access to the most challenging curricula in the state.

“The gist of what we found, unsurprisingly, was that Black students are grossly underrepresented in these most advanced curricula,” Darity said. “Black students were grossly overrepresented in slow-learner classes.”

He said that the gaps on advanced classes contribute to the overall achievement gaps, leaving concerning implications. 

“Unless you believe that there is a genetic difference in intelligence, then there is something very dangerous going on,” Darity said.

Sneed started a program to challenge students who didn’t test into the gifted program but could benefit from exposure to the advanced classes. 

“We tried to start identifying student talents very early, especially even in kindergarten,” Sneed said. “Our teachers could see potential. ... They just didn’t have that early preschool reading.” 

Sneed’s leadership enabled the school to receive recognition for its outstanding growth. Because at least 90 percent of students performed proficiently on their EOGs, Southwest was named an Honor School of Excellence. Teachers became fully invested once the results were apparent.

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“Teachers were so on board,” Sneed said. “They were proud of their progress. I think a lot of them had wanted to do this. Once they saw that our kids were performing and that our academically gifted population was growing, our teachers were all for that.”

Jen Meyer, a 20-year veteran teacher at Southwest Elementary, attributes his success to the comprehensive approach he took. 

“I think a lot of the things he encouraged, we didn’t realize were part of closing the achievement gap necessarily, it was just best practice,” Meyer said. “Best practice leads to closing the achievement gap.” 

New leader

Meyer said that Sneed’s initiatives are still mentioned at Southwest and have been revamped under the current principal, Nicholas Rotosky. 

When Sneed was principal, Rotosky taught physical education, but Sneed encouraged him to get a degree in school administration from North Carolina Central University. 

Rotosky shares Sneed’s commitment to tracking student growth. 

“He was a data guru,” Rotosky said. “I think that’s where my passion for data came from, and I have a lot of the same philosophies.”

Although the achievement gap between Black and white students only decreased by 1.1 percent between Rotosky's arrival at Southwest in 2014 and the 2016-17 school year, he said that all students are growing, and he considers their collective growth to be a success.

“If you look at our achievement gap, unfortunately, the gap is not closing as quickly as I would like it to,” Rotosky said. “But it’s actually not a bad problem because our lowest level students, whatever demographic or sub-group it is, is moving forward; they’re growing. So the ceiling is getting higher.”

To track the growth of all students, Rotosky holds meetings with each teacher three times per year to assess the data for each one. 

He keeps data and anecdotes in a Google Drive. The data sheet for each student travels with them as they advance through Southwest. Teachers have access to the data over the summer to start planning tailored growth goals. 

Rotosky acknowledges that the achievement gap between Black and white students is not the only issue. He has expanded the dual language program at Southwest, which Sneed started, in an attempt to decrease the difference of 30.9 percent in achievement between Hispanics and whites.

Under Rotosky’s administration, Southwest has climbed from a D to a C performance grade, with a total gain of 17 points. Rotosky said it is unfortunate that Sneed’s high performance wasn’t maintained after Sneed left, but he is encouraged that Southwest is currently four points away from a B performance grade. 

“It’s exciting to take over his school—my school, our school—and get Southwest back where they should be,” Rotosky said. “Our goal is to become an A-level school, and I have no doubts that we’ll get there some day.”

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