Closing the Achievement Gap at Signal Hill Elementary

For decades, policymakers have been working to address the large differences in test scores between students from different income brackets and racial backgrounds – an issue known as the achievement gap.  A 2018 report studying national data found that on average, Black and Latino 12th grade students perform at the similar reading levels to White 8th grade students. Further, the income-based achievement gap is twice the size of the racial achievement gap and has increased exponentially in recent decades.

Los Angeles County serves over 1.5 million students across 2,203 public schools, and the vast majority of public schools serve low-income students of color. Nearly 60% of public schools in the county serve low-income Latino students, and 32% of public schools serve low-income Black students. In 2018, just 21% of Black students and 29% of Latino students were proficient in math compared to 57% of White students and 78% of Asian students across the county’s diverse student body.

Explore elementary student proficiency in English across Los Angeles neighborhoods on the map below. 

This data story was developed in partnership with Innovate Public Schools, an organization that publishes the annual Top Los Angeles Public Schools for Underserved Students report, which identifies the top schools in California that are closing the achievement gap in low income communities of color. In order to be identified as a Top Public School, a school’s low-income Latino and Black students must have higher English and math scores than the state average for all students.

Signal Hill Elementary

In 2019, Signal Hill Elementary in Long Beach Unified School District was identified as a Top Public School for closing the achievement gap for African American and Latino students in both English and Math. The school is located in Signal Hill, a small city in the Harbor region of the county and with a total population of 11,581 as of 2017 American Community Survey 5-year estimates. The community is made of a diverse group of residents: 25% of the population identify as Mexican, 11% identify as Black, 10% identify as Filipino and 6% identify as Cambodian. An additional 14% of people in Signal Hill identify as Asian or Latino from a variety of other nationalities. 

Income Diversity in Signal Hill

As of 2017 American Community Survey 5-year estimates, the median income in Signal Hill is just over $75,843 – well over the county median income of approximately $61,000. However, a further look at median incomes by racial group and household composition show a more nuanced picture of wealth in Signal Hill. Non-Hispanic White families earn a median income of $88,112 compared to the Latino median income of $73,508 and the Asian median income of $61,071.  Black households had significantly lower incomes than all other racial groups at $47,045.  

Further, despite the city’s higher income than the county average, 80% of students in Signal Hill are enrolled in the Free and Reduced Price Lunch program, suggesting that households with higher incomes in the area may have no children, less children, or may be opting out of the public school system. As of 2017 estimates, families with children in Signal Hill earn almost $15,000 less than the city average, while singe-parent households earn $45,000 less than the average household. 

Educational Attainment

A recent study from Pew Research Center shows that education is playing a larger role in the widening income gap in America than at any other point in history. In 2013, millennials with a college degree made nearly $17,500 more on average than their counterparts who had just a high school diploma. Comparatively, in 1965, the gap between young people with a college and high school education was just $7,500 – a full $10,000 less than the gap in 2013. Given the increasing divide between high school and college graduates, college preparedness, enrollment, and graduation are playing an increasingly important role in the economic prospects of young people around the country.

According to 2017 5-year estimates, just over a thousand young adults (18-24 year olds) live in Signal Hill, and 43% of them are enrolled in school.  Of the adults 25 years and older in the city, 40% had a bachelor’s degree or higher level of education – higher than the county average of 31%. Both the college graduation rate and the rate of people with less than a high school diploma have remained relatively unchanged in recent years for the 25 and older age group. 

Middle & Elementary Student Proficiency

According to the University of Chicago Consortium on School Research, grades and attendance starting in middle school can impact a child’s chances of going to college. As such, student proficiency rates for young students are an important measure to track readiness for the next steps of their education.  Based on data calculated using school attendance boundaries, 39% of 7th graders in the city of Signal Hill were proficient in math in 2018, up from 24% in 2015. Over the same time period, 7th grade proficiency in math rose from 30 to 39% in Long Beach Unified School District and from 30 to 35% across the county.

Students at Signal Hill Elementary saw a similar rise in proficiency to their middle school peers in their community. In 2015, 33% of Signal Hill Elementary students were considered proficient in math – roughly on par with the county average for grades 3 through 5. In English for that year, roughly 40% of students at the school were proficient – also in line with other students in the county.  By 2018, however, proficiency rates at the school rose to 57% in math compared to 42% countywide and 62% in English compared to 48% countywide.

Further, Black and Latino students at Signal Hill Elementary made the largest gains in proficiency rates from 2015 to 2018, demonstrating the possibility of closing the achievement gap. Math proficiency for both Black and Latino students doubled over the three-year period to over 50% of students, and both groups also made large gains in English.  During the same time period, proficiency rates for Black and Latino students across the county improved only marginally.  

It Takes a Community

While Signal Hill Elementary has implemented a multitude of practices and programs to close the achievement gap for their students, partnerships with community organizations also play a role in helping students achieve success.  The school has partnered with the Signal Hill Police Department who provides support each day during drop-off and pick-up hours to keep traffic flowing and monitor the area around the school for safety.  Neighborhood safety is an important component of student achievement, and research has shown that students living in neighborhoods with higher rates of crime preform worse in school over time compared to students living in areas with less crime, after controlling for all other differences.

In addition to their partnership with the police department, Signal Hill Elementary also engages with other organizations to help their students obtain supplies and services. The Signal Hill Rotary Club provides school supplies to students who may struggle to pay for them otherwise, while the Assistance League of Long Beach provides uniforms so that the “students can feel like the scholars that they are.” 

Signal Hill Elementary also partners with several health organizations to provide preventative care and keep their students healthy. Research has shown that better health outcomes in students are associated with higher student achievement. In the city of Signal Hill, 20% of Latino residents do not have health insurance, along with 16% and 18% of Black and Asian residents respectively (as of 2017 5-year estimates). Comparatively, just 6% of White residents are without health insurance.  To help bridge this gap in healthcare access for students, Bright Smiles provides dental work to Signal Hill Elementary students while Vision to Learn provides eye exams and glasses.  

Closing the Achievement Gap

The achievement gap between students of different racial and economic backgrounds is an issue rooted in a history of segregation and institutionalized biases that parents, school staff, advocates and others across the nation are working to solve. Innovate Public Schools is joining this effort by highlighting how certain schools and their surrounding communities are coming together to level the playing field for students of all backgrounds. Signal Hill Elementary is taking a multi-faceted approach that includes everything from curriculum changes to neighborhood safety to make the achievement gap in their community obsolete.

This story was written in collaboration with Innovate Public Schools, as  part of the Los Angeles County Top Public Schools for Underserved Students report. 

Lynnete Guzman

Lynnete Guzman

Lynnete Guzman is a Research Assistant at Price Center for Social Innovation and a Master of Planning candidate at University of Southern California. As a health equity advocate, Lynnete is interested in utilizing data to promote policy and planning decisions that serve the needs and interests of low-income communities of color. Prior, Lynnete was as a community organizer in her hometown, Santa Ana, CA, and worked on policy campaigns for mobility justice, affordable healthcare, and establishing a local community land trust.

Ickovics, Jeannette, et al. Health and Academic Achievement: Cumulative Effects of Health Assets on Standardized Test Scores Among Urban Youth in the United States. Journal of School Health. 2015. Link

Pew Research Center. The Rising Cost of Not Going to College. 2014. Link

Public Impact. Closing the Achievement Gaps in Diverse and Low-Poverty Schools: An Action Guide for District Leaders. 2018. Link

University of Chicago Consortium on Chicago School Research. Looking Forward to High School and College Readiness: Middle Grade Indicators of Readiness in Chicago Public Schools. 2014. Link.

U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Neighborhoods and Violent Crime. 2016. Link

Photo Attributions

All photos taken by Megan Goulding and shared with permission from Signal Hill Elementary School. 

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