Leslie Garcia, 31, thought moving her 15-year-old son, Jayden Rodriguez, from Stroman to Cade Middle School would help him finally succeed.

But Jayden, the oldest eighth-grader at Cade, said he still feels hopeless.

"If I fail, I fail. I really want to pass, so I can go to ninth grade," Jayden said, "but if I fail, I don't know if I'll really care anymore."

Jayden said he's failing all but one of his classes and expects to be held back again. Jayden already has been held back three times, mostly because of his low grades and poor attendance. In fifth grade, his mother chose to hold him back, even though Jayden said he had the option to advance.

"I haven't dropped out because of my family," Jayden said. "I don't want to be all in the streets. I want to live a good life."

Jayden represents a larger problem in the Victoria school district: A wide gap exists between the educational achievement of minority students, most likely to be economically disadvantaged, and the rest of the student population. The gap also exists across Texas and the nation, but it is more pronounced in Victoria.

Achievement gaps are a complicated issue, said Victoria Superintendent Robert Jaklich.

"This is not just about white or minority students. It's about all students," Jaklich said. "In order to understand the achievement gaps we have, we need to take a look at the history of standardized testing in Texas."

History of standardized testing

The National Commission on Excellence in Education filed a report in April 1983 to the U.S. Department of Education called, "A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Educational Reform."

The report described the nation's education system as slipping into "a rising tide of mediocrity that threatens our very future as a nation and a people."

In the 32 years since, schools across the United States have adopted and changed standardized testing to mixed reviews, at best.

The first required state exam was approved by the Texas Legislature in 1979 and was called the Texas Assessment of Basic Skills.

It's important to look at achievement in the context of race because without those breakdowns it would be easy for districts to hide gaps, said Aaron Pallas, a professor of sociology and education at Columbia University's Teacher College.

"Texas is partly to blame in the sense that No Child Left Behind had its roots in Texas and so did the rationale for subgroup reporting by ethnicity and English-language learners," Pallas said. "The perception that a school district could hide its gaps made subgroup reporting part of a very valuable goal to shine a light on a problem."

Soon after the No Child Left Behind Act took effect in 2001, the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills replaced the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills in 2003. Before TAAS, the state exam was known as the Texas Educational Assessment of Minimum Skills.

Texas changed yet again to the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness, or STAAR, in 2012. A year after that, legislators chose to change the requirements for mathematics for eighth and fifth grade and reduced the number of tests from 15 to four.

STAAR was designed to be more rigorous and introduced timed-testing to the standardized exam.

Many states' move to Common Core standards has worked against closing the achievement gap because the tests are now less predictable and more challenging, Pallas said.

During a nine-year period in the late 1990s and 2000s, VISD saw improvements in its achievement gap, said Susanne Carroll, executive director of curriculum, instruction and accountability for the Victoria school district.

"We haven't had enough time with this new assessment to make any significant strides toward closing the achievement gap," Carroll said.

The challenge continues to be a tough one with the constant changes to high-stakes testing and curriculum swapping that has occurred on the state level, Carroll said. At the same time, many school districts have sued the state over lack of funding.

Since the transition to STAAR, all students' passing percentages dropped, which also happened statewide, said Diane Boyett, Victoria school district communications director.

"We live under multiple accountability systems in Texas," Boyett said. "The demands are higher; there is no question about that."

Poverty gap

Education achievement gaps are closely tied to poverty, experts agree.

Almost 19 percent of Victoria residents live below the poverty line. That's higher than both the Texas and U.S. rate.

In addition, 63 percent of Victoria school district students are classified as economically disadvantaged, and 43.2 percent are considered at risk of leaving school without a diploma, according to the district's 2013-14 state profile.

The Victoria school district has taken a variety of steps in recent years to try to close the gaps for minorities and economically disadvantaged students:

• The development of an accelerated credit-recovery program for high school students.

• The alignment of curriculum for prekindergarten students.

• Paying for high school students' college exam preparatory classes and the PSAT exams.

"Our business is hope," Jaklich said. "We want to help students make the choices that make for a better education and create an environment where kids can succeed."

The district also has hired additional attendance liaisons to work with drop-out prevention specialists, Jaklich said.

"If you're not going to own your education, we can't do it for you," the superintendent said.

Success story, challenges

Liberty Academy, an alternative education accountability campus part of the Victoria school district, has seen some of the most success in bridging the performance gaps for minority and economically disadvantaged students.

Sherri Hathaway, associate director of secondary curriculum, instruction and accountability and former Liberty Academy principal, said because of the lower student-to-teacher ratio and a more specialized-learning environment, at-risk students have been able to thrive at Liberty.

As an alternative education center, Liberty has no marching band, football team or other major extracurricular activities, but the school does offer clubs, Hathaway said.

"The campus' early college program also helps most of our students pay for their dual-credit classes, which leads to big savings for a lot of our families," Hathaway said.

The student achievement gap for economically disadvantaged students compared with the general student population is the widest at higher performing campuses. Not coincidentally, these schools also have the lowest percentage of economically disadvantaged students.

Mission Valley Elementary and William Wood Elementary - both rural schools - and Schorlemmer Elementary School had the widest gaps for economically disadvantaged students at the primary level. Cade and Howell middle schools had the widest gaps for economically disadvantaged students, compared with Patti Welder and Stroman middle schools.

The gap at these schools, otherwise held up as high-performing, emphasizes the challenge of meeting the needs of economically disadvantaged students.

At Schorlemmer, a higher-performing school, 46.7 percent of students are economically disadvantaged, compared with Hopkins Elementary School, a lower-performing school, which has a 91.8 percent economically disadvantaged student population and, thus, no achievement gap.

Pallas said districts must work to have top teachers with adequate resources at the schools with more economically disadvantaged students.

"Having a high concentration of poor Hispanics at a campus that is not performing well is a very common phenomenon because segregated living occurs everywhere," Pallas said.

Held back

When Jayden was in fourth grade, he moved to San Marcos and then returned to Shields Elementary in Victoria for fifth grade.

Likewise, a third of Victoria school district students have either transferred in or out at some point of time. This creates problems with educational continuity, district officials say.

"Our community is a mobile population," said Dionne Hughes, VISD director of federal programs.

Jayden's mother lost her job two years ago and lives with her brother in Victoria while Jayden lives with his grandmother.

The blame for his bad grades is - for the most part - his own, Jayden said.

"Sometimes, I don't listen, but then I do, but then also it's about the dress code," Jayden said. "How am I supposed to learn when I'm in in-school suspension?"

Students can get the clothing they need to remain in dress code from KIDZConnection, located across the street from Patti Welder Middle School, district administrator Carroll said.

"They have the shirts, clothes they need to eliminate the need to go to ISS," Carroll said. "They can take those clothes home. We are working with students on that issue."

Professor Pallas said in-school suspension can add to an achievement gap.

"It can result in kids feeling that the system is not looking out for them," Pallas said.

One big solution

Education experts from the local, state and national levels all agree that the key to closing the achievement gap lies within the expansion of high-quality early education for all students.

At the Victoria school district, 590 students are enrolled in prekindergarten, which in Texas includes only families at low-income levels, foster children and children of an active member of the armed forces.

"Next year, we'll see about 1,000 students in kindergarten, which means there are 410 students out there who may have not attended pre-K," Superintendent Jaklich said.

The Victoria school district began offering full-day pre-K through an Even Start grant from the Barbara Bush Family Literacy Grants for Texas in 2004.

After the Legislature made cuts to education in 2011, the Victoria school district continued to fund full-day pre-K with a combination of federal and local funds.

"VISD made the commitment to continue to fund the other half day of pre-K because we knew it was of critical importance to those students and their families because of the success rate associated with pre-K," Boyett said.

The expansion of early education is worthwhile, Pallas said.

"It can't just be any type of early-childhood education," Pallas said. "It has to be a high-quality program, which usually isn't cheap."

Steve Murdock, a former state demographer, said early education for 4-year-olds and 3-year-olds has a bigger payback than any other single investment in a person's development.

"An investment from the state would be needed to make pre-K available for everyone," he said.

Carol Tippins, associate director of elementary curriculum, instruction and accountability, said for all students to be able to succeed, what needs to be filled is the "opportunity gap."

A high-quality, early-education program can act as an equalizer, Tippins said.

"Giving a student access to pre-K can help begin close that gap," Tippins said. "Early education is essential."

The number of books students are around in their home can affect how vast their vocabulary grows, Tippins said.

"By targeting vocabulary and spending the extra time needed determining a student's learning style, we're working to close those gaps," Tippins said.

A community solution

The Victoria Alliance, a nonprofit organization aimed at improving the quality of life in the city, could provide help for economically disadvantaged students, said Tami Keeling, Victoria school district board president.

Education was one of the top challenges community members showed concern for in a survey recently distributed by the Victoria Alliance.

"I'm really excited about the conversations we're having right now through the Victoria Alliance," Keeling said. "We need to look at how we can bring more prosperity to the region."

One suggestion Keeling offered was citywide wireless Internet services, which would make education and job opportunities more accessible to the general public.

"Those factors outside the school house, like transportation, wage opportunity and housing, are things we have to take on as a community," Keeling said.

Alma Medrano, a mother of five and Victoria Alliance steering committee member, said raising the minimum wage would allow working-class parents to afford early childhood education and daycare.

"We had to take out student loans to make ends meet," Medrano, 40, said. "Employers need to be aware of parents, who are also going to school, needing flexible schedules."

Medrano also suggested apartment companies and the Victoria Housing Authority provide rental discounts to working parents attending school.

"The Food Bank could also make packages ready for parents juggling work and school," Medrano said. "If just one of those ideas were implemented, it would be awesome for the community."

When students are unsure where their next meal is coming from, they aren't ready to succeed in school, said Emilio Vargas III, Goliad school district superintendent.

"The achievement gap is not based on race; money does not discriminate," Vargas said. "It's important to make sure all students are getting the nutrients they need to succeed."

Kim Pickens, board president of the Victoria Area Homeless Coalition, said the lack of affordable housing is one of the main barriers for economically disadvantaged families.

"That's a problem that's very specific to this area," Pickens said. "Having to move from place to place because you can't find an affordable place to live puts a lot of pressure and stress on students."

Although the school district is doing what it can to address the issue, Pickens said, more support needs to come from the outside to address the achievement gap.

"It's going to get worse before it gets better," Pickens said. "We're about to have more people in need with the downturn in the oil prices who have already spent most of their Eagle Ford Shale boom money on new cars and other things."

Helping today's students

Although early education is vital, Jaklich said, the district has room for improvement on all grade levels in terms of closing the achievement gap.

"While the expansion of pre-K continues across the country and, as we work to improve what we offer here, we can't forget about students in the system right now," the superintendent said.

Jayden said he doesn't blame the education system or his parents for his academic shortcomings.

"I have good teachers at Cade that help me out and try to lead me in the right direction," Jayden said. "They help me a lot, and most of the time, I act like I don't really care."

When asked whether he could be ready for high school next year, Jayden sniffled some and paused for several seconds before responding.

"I don't think I'm ready. Everything just keeps getting harder and harder," Jayden said. "I want to join track, but I can't because of my report card."

Shining star

Willord Simmons, a Victoria East High School senior, said getting through public school as an African-American would have been more of a challenge without the continued support from his family and church.

His mother, a special education and homebound teacher, has earned her bachelor's and master's degrees. His father worked for a paper-printing company for 46 years before retiring and did not attend college.

"Because my dad didn't go to school, he's always been very adamant about me and my education," Willord, 17, said.

Willord attended Victoria Christian School for prekindergarten before he transferred to DeLeon Elementary School in second grade.

"It was supposed to be a hard change, but if anything I found that everything had become easier," Willord said.

It wasn't until middle school when Willord said he began to notice a difference in performance between him and his African-American peers.

"When I started to take more rigorous classes, I noticed there weren't many people who looked like me in the classroom," Willord said.

Luckily, Willord said, he was able to develop a close group of African-American friends from his early days at private school.

"When you're treated unfairly, it's usually because you're expected to be within the average, which is what drives me to be better," Willord said. "I don't have to conform to what society thinks about people like me."

As a sophomore at Victoria East, Willord performed an originally composed piano piece for the Black History Month Program at Shields Elementary School, where the 2013-14 STAAR test was passed by 41 percent of African-American students; 45 percent of Hispanic students; and 63 percent of Anglo students.

"It was my first time being on that campus," Willord said. "My dad cooks for the homeless every week, which has definitely made giving back to the community a really important part of my life."

Willord shines academically and takes part in various extracurricular activities, including serving as drum major for the high school marching band and as a member of a district-wide student leadership group.

"Growing up in today's society as a young African-American male, it is vital that I have a plan for my life," Willord wrote in one of his college essays addressing the achievement gap. "It has been said that failing to plan is planning to fail."

Students' background, regardless of their household income, should not determine an individual's destiny, Willord said.

"Here in high school, there are so many resources and the opportunities to get what you need," Willord said. "Too often, we have a tendency to settle for the standard society has plotted out for us."

Digital Editor Jordan Rubio contributed to this story.

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