Closing the achievement gap, one volunteer tutor at a time

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“Over half of the 38,000 kids in the Saint Paul Public School system are not proficient in reading or math,” said Karen Woodward, program director for the Tutoring Partnership for Academic Excellence. She and others involved in tutoring programs for SPPS spoke at the January 28 Committee on the Achievement Gap meeting at House of Hope Presbyterian Church.

More than 40 people attended the meeting, which was the first in the committee’s three-year history to take place in Saint Paul.

The Committee on the Achievement Gap is sponsored by the DFL Education Foundation and was convened in 2007 by former mayor and congressional representative Don Fraser to promote bi-partisan interest and engagement around the gaps in educational achievement between white students, students of color and low-income students.

The Saint Paul meetings, which are held in partnership with the Saint Paul Area Council of Churches, will take place the last Friday of each month at House of Hope.

The next committee meeting is scheduled for February 25th at noon and will feature Hamilton Bell of the Saint Paul Promise Neighborhood.

Friday’s meeting came just a few short days after the National Assessment of Educational Progress released the 2009 Nation’s Report Card for science, one of their annual assessments of educational proficiency which are measured at the 4th, 8th and 12th grade levels. Minnesota’s results at both the 4th grade and 8th grade levels showed Minnesota students to be slightly more proficient in science than students nationally, but with an achievement gap between white students and students of color that is on par with the national average.

The discussion featured a presentation by the Saint Paul Public Schools Foundation, whose executive director was on hand to discuss how they are combating the achievement gap with their Tutoring Partnership for Academic Excellence.

Executive director Mike Anderson opened the discussion by asking, “How would Saint Paul be different if the achievement gap didn’t exist?” Audience members, many of whom were educators or tutors themselves, gave answers indicating that not only would the social and economic quality of life in Saint Paul be significantly better, but also teachers would be able to focus instead on the cultural enrichment and education of all students. The question was intended to point out that the achievement gap is a community issue. Through their Tutoring Partnership, the Foundation is focused on getting the community involved in solving the problem.

Board chair Tom Holman used numbers to further illustrate that point. “Currently we have one teacher for every thirty students,” he explained. “But we have ten citizens for every kid. If just 10% of those people got involved, you’d have a one to one ratio.” The Foundation is working on that ratio by recruiting community members and turning them into tutors. Through the Tutoring Partnership program, more than 2,000 community volunteers from 26 tutoring partnerships and 41 schools-based tutoring programs are currently tutoring 4,500 students, ages K-8, in the Saint Paul Public School system. An additional 125 volunteers from service organizations such AmeriCorps assist in the effort.

Woodward said that even proficiency shouldn’t be viewed as good enough. If we’re going to reach the kind of community that the discussion opened with, we are going to need full investment by teachers, parents, students and the community at large.

If you would like to get involved in the Tutoring Partnership, or if you just want to find out more about the Saint Paul Public Schools Foundation, visit their website

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