NECAP scores at the school tell the story. Dover has reported some of the top NECAP scores in the state, and over the last five years, the scores of all Dover students have shown a steady improvement. But the scores of students who are eligible for free and reduced lunch have recently surpassed those of their more affluent peers. In 2008 math and reading scores, for instance, an achievement gap was still evident, with students from lower income families scoring about 15 points below their peers. By 2010, reading scores of students eligible for free and reduced lunch were nearly on par with students from higher incomes. 2010 math scores still showed a significant achievement gap - but the percentage of students eligible for free and reduced lunch who were substantially below proficient dropped to zero from 24% just a year earlier.
By 2012, the latest year for which test data are available, scores for students eligible for free and reduced lunch were significantly higher than their peers. In reading, 100% were proficient and 90% of higher income students were proficient. In math, 92% of kids eligible for free and reduced lunch were proficient, along with 90% of their peers.
Since the mid-1960s the term achievement gap has been used to describe the difference in academic achievement of different socioeconomic groups. Statistically, students from families with low incomes tend to have significantly lower test scores, lower grades, and higher dropout rates than their peers from families with higher incomes.
In the world of public education, the income factor in the gap has been defined by eligibility for free and reduced lunch under the federal school lunch program. Under the program, students with family incomes at 130% of the federal poverty level or lower are eligible for free school meals, and students with family incomes between 130% and 185% of the federal poverty level are eligible for school meals at a reduced price.
In Vermont, about 41% of students qualify for the free or reduced lunch program, and Dover School is in line with the state average with about 40% of students qualifying. Nationwide, 52% of students qualify for either free or reduced lunch.
Michael Hock, Director of Educational Assessment at the Vermont Agency of Education, says there are other Vermont schools that, like Dover, have made strides in closing the income achievement gap. But statewide, the gap remains, and the state may be looking at schools like Dover’s to see how they’re changing the achievement paradigm. “There are schools in the state that aren’t following the usual pattern,” he said. “One of the things we want to do is find out what they’ve been doing and get other schools to emulate what they’ve done.”
Principal Bill Anton credits programs and strategies that have been in place at the school since before he became principal in 2008 for the dramatic results at Dover School. “We’ve had principals and teachers come visit us and see what we’re doing here,” he says. “But it’s not rocket science; we didn’t build a new program.”
Anton says there are a number of circumstances working in Dover students’ favor, including small class sizes that allow individualized instruction, strong professional development for teachers, support from the school board and voters, and low staff turnover. (“I’m the newest employee,” Anton notes.) Advocates of early childhood education say it can narrow or even eliminate the achievement gap, and Dover has programs for students as young as 3 years old. And one of Anton’s tasks over the last five years has been to integrate technology into the education program in a way that supports what teachers are doing in the classroom. “It all adds up over time,” Anton says. “It adds up to all students being able to achieve at a high level.”
Anton says there hasn’t been any focus on improving the performance of any particular demographic group at the school. Hock says Dover’s strategy of focusing on students from all income groups equally for improvement has been shown to be particularly successful for kids from low income households. “The agency of education did a pretty large study called The Roots of Success. One of the things they found was that strategies that benefited all kids were especially beneficial for kids from low income families.”
Anton says Dover will continue to build on its success. “We’ll keep doing our thing; we’ll keep building the capacity of our teachers, looking on the horizon to see what our students need, and evaluate ourselves to see if we are delivering the best education we can with a taxpayer-friendly budget.”