Connecticut has one of the largest achievement gaps in the country at all levels, in all subjects, for all disadvantaged groups — but representatives of the local educational community said they are optimistic about the possibilities for change.

Creative approaches to education reform coupled with New Haven’s already-existing educational assets should help schools improve performance, said speakers at a Dwight Hall-sponsored panel on urban education reform. The four panelists — including a teacher and representatives from Connecticut educational organizations — stressed the need to educate the entire child and to provide support of schools combined with governmental pressure to improve achievement, among other strategies.

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The achievement gap in New Haven schools is fairly typical of other Connecticut school systems, said panelist Alex Johnston, director of the Connecticut Coalition for Achievement Now, or ConnCAN, a nonprofit organization that seeks to close Connecticut’s achievement gap.

“The reality is, we have a huge problem,” Johnston said. “It is not one that is unique to New Haven.”

In New Haven high schools, the gap between the percentages of low-income and non-low-income students who have scored within the goal range for their grade level is 15 percent. Between African-American and white students, the gap is 29 percent, and between Hispanic and white students, there is a 28 percent gap, according to ConnCAN’s Web site.

But the New Haven school system has a number of assets that make it stand out among other school districts, Johnston said.

Among these are a number of high-performance schools, a strong Teach for America program, the presence of Yale University and the largest school construction program of any school in the state, Johnston said.

Panelists said the 2001 No Child Left Behind Act helped raise awareness about the achievement gap, but they gave the program’s methods mixed reviews.

“[The act] has forced school districts to look at all their children and to look at the gap between the achievement of all the children,” said panelist Camille Cooper, director of teaching and learning for the Comer School Development Program. “Some of that had blended into the background before No Child Left Behind.”

But Johnston noted that governmental support for schools needed to be present along with pressure to improve performance in order for sustainable change to occur.

A single-minded focus on academic achievement will not produce results either, Cooper said, stressing the importance of guiding children’s social, psychological and physical development along with their academic development.

“We really advocate looking at all aspects of the child and not just looking at a child as a brain on a stick,” Cooper said.

Panelist Burt Saxon, the 2005 Connecticut Teacher of the Year, said he saw charter schools as a way to explore innovative ways to educate the whole child while closing the achievement gap.

Despite the alarming statistics, a note of optimism pervaded the forum. Panelist Emily Barton ’04, director of Teach for America Connecticut, said she saw Connecticut’s large achievement gap as a call to arms and an opportunity to be involved in something significant.

“It is just an incredibly exciting moment in time,” she said. “There are so many amazing initiatives happening and so many incredibly motivated people driving these initiatives forward.”