Closing the Achievement Gap: One Size Does NOT Fit All

Posted on April 15, 2013


Closing the achievement gap in academics between at-risk, marginalized, student populations and their mainstream counterparts is the goal of a great many public and private initiatives across our country; and rightly so, as education continues to be the cornerstone for opportunities and self-sufficiency.

The root causes of the achievement gap are many, and there isn’t one “silver bullet” solution. It is known that dramatic results can be achieved by addressing the emotional well-being and mental health of the students caught in the achievement gap. Recent research examining the gap between Latino students and their non-minority counterparts points directly at this critical element, “…the matter comes down to overcoming the negative effects of ‘stereotype threat,’ a phenomenon…identified and documented over the last two decades. What they have found – in numerous studies – is that the stress and uncertain sense of belonging that can stem from being a member of a negatively stereotyped group undermines academic performance of minority students as compared with white students.”**

Addressing the emotional needs and mental health of this population is critical if we are to rectify the achievement gap problem. If a student feels like he or she belongs, then he or she is more likely to stay in school, and then academic success can follow.

At Sunny Hills, we offer a number of services to youth who are in the achievement gap, and the programs are successful in many ways. In Sonoma County, staff in our Community Engagement and Youth Development (CEYD) offer workshops in middle schools and high schools in which they help at-risk youth develop the assets and competencies that reduce absenteeism and the risk of delinquency, improve their grades and engage them productively in their families, schools and communities. Youth who complete the CEYD program achieve, on average, a full point gain in their GPAs.

BAYC, the Alameda County division of Sunny Hills Services, offers a continuum of housing, life skills development, and mental health programs designed to support current and former foster youth ages 14 to 24 through successful transitions to adulthood. These youth are supported to stay in school, to see themselves as important in the world, and to overcome the “stereotype threat” that is so prevalent among these students who are often disproportionally represented in the foster care system. Seventy percent of the youth in our RAFA program graduate high school, versus half of former foster youth in the general population.

This research reaffirms our belief in the work that we do at Sunny Hills Services—engaging our youth in positive ways, and affirming their abilities – will help them to overcome the emotional and mental health challenges that get in their way. Through our partnership with them, youth are better able to build the social, emotional and academic skills that will allow them to learn and thrive.


Posted in: From the CEO