Achievement Plus in St. Paul

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• by Mary Turck, 4/27/08 • The little boy began kindergarten already behind, explained Lynnell Thiel. He had never been to preschool, he knew only 14 of his letters, and he just didn’t seem to be making any progress. Luckily for him, Johnson Elementary School on St. Paul’s East Side has a tutoring program, provided by the School Sisters of Notre Dame. After six weeks of one-to-one tutoring four times a week, he knew his whole alphabet – and could sight-read 42 words. That little boy is now ready for success in school. His story is part of Achievement Plus, an 11-year-old collaboration between St. Paul Public Schools, Wilder Foundation, the YMCA, Ramsey County and the City of St. Paul.

The story came from an April 25 brown bag lunch meeting sponsored by the Committee on the Achievement Gap. Achievement Plus now operates in three St. Paul schools – Dayton’s Bluff and John A. Johnson elementary schools and Cleveland junior high school. (Next year it will add North End elementary. Monroe was initially an Achievement Plus school, but did not remain in the program.)

According to Thiel, who is one of three Achievement Plus staff, the program uses a community school model that includes:

• School as a center of community life
• School, families and community partnering to educate children
• Open to students, families, and community members with extended hours throughout the year (One school reported 387 evening and Saturday events in an eight-month period.)
• Educational opportunities for families and community (such as basic education or English classes for parents)
• Array of services for families and communities (including on-site dental clinics and mental health services and family rooms that offer services such as emergency food or parenting classes)

The Achievement Plus schools have high levels of poverty, as measured by free and reduced-price lunch eligibility. They began the program well below the district-wide levels on student achievement tests. They have high numbers of students beginning school with limited English proficiency. In short, the Achievement Plus schools are not easy targets for success.

When it began 11 years ago, the program focused on providing support services for students and families. After a few years of support services, no clear pattern of student achievement was seen, according to Wilder Foundation researcher Dan Mueller. So changes were implemented.

Achievement Plus added a strong focus on standards-based academic achievement, including high expectations for all students and increased professional development days for teachers. In addition, Dayton’s Bluff was “reconstituted,” with big changes in staffing and administration beginning in 2002.

Today, both Dayton’s Bluff and Johnson elementary schools can point to dramatic improvements in student achievement, measured by MCA tests.

In 2000, Mueller said, only 12 percent of Dayton’s Bluff students met MCA test standards. By 2005, 66 percent of Dayton’s Bluff students tested as proficient on MCA tests. Johnson’s improvement was measurable, but less dramatic, especially since Johnson did not start from as far down as Dayton’s Bluff. Absenteeism has dropped, and school staff report fewer disciplinary problems and better school climate.

Parts of the Achievement Plus model – such as involvement by the East Side Learning Center tutoring program and the East Side Neighborhood Development Corporation and the East Side Family Center – now extend to other schools in the district. Community partners, including the East Side YMCA, are crucial to delivering the broad array of services to students and families.

Today, school staff strongly believe that Achievement Plus improves student achievement. That’s a marked change. In 2001, less than 40% of teachers believed the program was effective. By 2007, about 90% said they think the program working.

The most important lessons of Achievement Plus can be found in the conclusion to the written report on the program, “The Journey to Reform,” which summarizes the first eight years of the program. The conclusion identifies two “intangible qualities present in thriving projects or programs,” as:

“An attitude that all students can learn if all the pieces are in place to assist them. …

“A belief that when the larger community works together, anything is possible.”