AURORA – When Julie Mackissock evaluates her eighth graders at Prairie Middle School in Aurora, she looks at all aspects of students, including the color of their skin.
"These differences are happening. How are we dealing with this?" Julie Mackissock, a Caucasian language arts teacher, said. "I think they're conversations we need to have. There's a huge gap in this country."
Mackissock is referring to statistics that show an academic achievement gap between White students and students of color.
"Our black and brown students have not performed at the same level as our White and Asian students and when you look at the data, race is a factor," Dr. Harry Bull, Cherry Creek Schools Superintendent, said.
9News has partnered with iNews of Rocky Mountain PBS to look at data from the 20 largest school districts in Colorado to detect how race plays a role in the academic achievement. We're looking at the demographics of schools before, during, and after efforts to desegregate schools in Colorado.
For years, the Cherry Creek School District has embraced the idea that race has to be part of the process in finding ways kids can learn. Bull knows discussing race can be difficult for school districts.
"I think that's the point for us is that we're not willing to ignore it," Bull said. "If we've got data that says this particular group is not doing well, then it is our job. It's our responsibility to after that and find a solution."
Mackissock says she's interested in data-supported facts instead of generalizations. She says race is a common topic amongst teachers.
"Probably, one of the conversations I have a lot is our Black boys and getting them interested in reading and books," Mackissock said. "I think a lot of the books that are written aren't necessarily written for Black middle school boys."
She says teachers will work to find materials that African-American male students might find more interesting to read. Looking at race can point to solutions for struggling academic success.
"When you talk about (race), you don't push it off to the side as something uncomfortable or something unsafe, then you can work on the root causes," Mackissock said.
The data suggests that in the Cherry School District, the strategy is working. Cherry Creek has the highest graduation rate of African-American students in Colorado. It has the third highest graduation rate of Latino students, as well. Test scores show that in Cherry Creek the achievement gap is shrinking.
"I think the data suggests that we're having success," Bull said. "It's about the quality teacher in the classroom with high expectations, who's great with instruction, great with relationships, saying to kids this is the class you need to be in. This is the level we're going to learn at and by gosh, I'm going to get you there."
In Cherry Creek Schools, Gifted and Talented classes and Advanced Placement courses have more minority students than most school districts in the state.
"I always say to people if you want smart kids, you put them in smart classes," Bull said.
Zipporah Beasley is an African-American eighth grade girl at Prairie Middle School. She says she likes that in her honors and gifted classes, there are a lot of different races represented.
"When you have a whole bunch of kids of different races in the same class, you guys learn together," Zipporah said. "You learn different things about each other and then you guys can help improve on each other's learning."
At Zipporah's school, the mix of kids is so diverse, administrators say there are more than 76 different languages spoken by students. She says that type of integration improves her learning experience.
"They do like different traditions and different like celebrations of things that we don't do and it's interesting to learn what they do and what we do," Zipporah said.
Mackissock says factoring race into learning is also about creating a culture of acceptance, no matter the color of anyone's skin.
"I think the kids feel loved here. I think they feel cared for," Mackissock said. "They feel like it's safe here."