Rebecca Gagnon: Response to Achievement Gap questions

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1.      The Minneapolis Public Schools have struggled for some time to raise the achievement of low-income students and students of color. 

a.      What in your opinion are the most important factors in raising student achievement?

The Achievement Gap is not a problem unique to Minneapolis Public Schools. As an urban school district, with a decreasing budget, decreasing enrollment, a majority of students under the title 1 umbrella, a significant homeless/highly mobile population, and a diverse population with various needs like NLL/ELL, MPS cannot look at one path to closing the achievement gap. However, we can reach a goal of all students college ready when they graduate high school. To do so, the District MUST: 

  • Research & utilize best practices from other like urban school districts that have had success in closing the achievement gap
  • SPEAK THE LANGUAGE OF SUCCESS to our students! Teachers, staff, and administration must BELIEVE that our students can achieve, graduate high school, attend college, and plan their future.
  • INCREASE PARENT INVOLVEMENT – parents MUST play a role by taking an interest in what their child does at school, reading with their child, doing homework with them, volunteering at school if possible, connecting with their teachers on a regular basis, and also communicating expectations and opportunities of higher education to their child!
  • Providing Professional Development for teachers and strengthening and broadening our Teacher Mentor program is critical so that all of our extraordinary teachers can differentiate in their classrooms, working with each individual student to achieve a school year’s worth of academic progress and celebrate all of our student’s individual academic achievements!

 

b.      What measures should the school board take to improve student outcomes?

The MPS School Board is tasked with overseeing the district’s budget, curriculum, personnel, and facilities. With that in mind, the Board must be diligent in following up with the curriculum in the schools for all groups of kids K-12, Special Needs, ELL/NLL, etc. Was it implemented properly? Is it the right fit for our schools? Are we following up with professional development for our teachers and are the teachers supported? The Board must require that all teachers and staff perform to high standards, gauging performance of teachers by the achievement of their students. Not by standardized test scores that rank students against their fellow students, locally and nationally, but by a variety of means that measure an individual child’s academic growth in a school year.   Finally, the MPS School Board needs to stay apprised of best practices from other urban school districts with the help of our Superintendent in order to constantly work towards improvement. A great curriculum and awesome teachers and staff are part of the solution. However, we must be diligent in tracking the success (or failure) of the programs we implement and the teachers and staff that we hire.

c.      If the school board follows your suggestions, how soon would you expect to see significant results?

Implementing my suggestions would go a long way in achieving academic progress throughout the district. However, some of my ideas are a shift in culture for MPS, and habits die hard. Parent involvement alone is a daunting task, especially with the recent negativity towards the district after CSO, special ed. program shifts, and the federally mandated “transformation” of our lowest performing schools. I have no doubt that our teachers want their students to achieve. So how do we re-train the way we do things to embrace the idea that all of us are a team – students, parents, teachers, staff – and we must work together, using a common language of achievement, showing our students on a daily basis that we believe in them and in their ability to be academically successful. We do it through district wide professional development and district wide community engagement. We do it by setting an example from the top down. The most common thing I have heard from IB teachers about transitioning to IB is the difficulty and awkwardness of learning the “language” of IB – profiles, units of inquiry, etc. However, after several months, or by the end of a school year, it is second nature and has transformed how they teach. I think that my suggestions will cause a similar reaction, and significant results will occur within one to two years of implementation – but the parent involvement piece is key.

2.      Some people are concerned that focusing on academic achievement for low-income students may lead to insufficient attention being paid to the needs of average and higher performing students. How do you respond to that concern?

As a parent of three children in three MPS schools at three different educational stages (high school, middle school, kindergarten), I can certainly relate to the frustration of your child being left to work independently because he/she has already mastered the curriculum or is already reading above grade level. This is where differentiation in the classroom works brilliantly and successfully. We need more professional development and teacher mentoring to implement this teaching style throughout the district. We need to work hard to keep classroom sizes manageable or offer support to teachers with larger class sizes.

3.      It has been suggested that certain provisions of the teachers’ contract make more difficult the staffing of schools adequate to meet the needs of all students.  What is your view?

The history of the teachers union and their relationship with the District is not something of which I am well versed. However, in our financial and academic climate, MPS must have the flexibility to put teachers where they fit and move teachers when the opposite is true. Schools that require specialized teacher training, like IB, Montessori, and Open, must be able to hire certified teachers for their programs to remain viable and successful. On the flip side, teachers need to have confidence in their job security if they are performing to high standards, and their students are achieving.

 

4.      One idea to improve student outcomes is to have a longer school day or a longer school year.  Do you favor increasing learning time for students, and if so, how would you like to see that happen?

 

I favor a longer school day and school year, but it is NOT the answer to our achievement gap problem. I moved my children from a district in Austin, TX that had an IB Middle School and an IB High School with longer school days and eight class periods. The High School was on block scheduling (more like a college schedule). When our schools are considered for IB status, one factor is our shorter school day and the six period class schedule in high school. It is very difficult to achieve an IB diploma with this schedule. Also, I think that if kids are in school, they are learning and they are in a safe, nurturing environment (at least I expect that to be true). Those factors ALONE are a convincing argument for a longer school day and the benefit to MPS students. A three month break in the summer creates a hardship on a lot of dual working or single parent households. Students do not retain what they have learned in school after such a long break. Of course, both of these require longer and more school days for teachers and staff which would require an increase in wages.

5.      Early childhood education is often offered as an important strategy for addressing the achievement gap.

 a.      What are your views on investing in early childhood education?

PLEASE invest in early childhood education. Those little brains are so eager to learn. They absorb EVERYTHING, and they are so willing to please. Toddlers and preschoolers want social interaction, want to explore and learn. Equally important is the early intervention that can occur if special needs are caught at a younger age and addressed appropriately.

b.      How can there be better alignment between pre-k programs and the K-12 system?

Working within the public school system to offer early childhood education is ideal because the district knows what would help a child to be successful in kindergarten and beyond. The district also has the resources to intervene if there is a special need. Early childhood education programs should mimic the learning style of the school site in which they are located. Montessori, IB, Open teaching, etc. should be implemented at the early childhood education level in order to create smooth transitions.

6.      Some people suggest we need more flexible or innovative models of delivering education.

a.      Do you favor or oppose charter schools?

I favor successful learning institutions. Different models work for different students. Charter schools, run with integrity and accountable for student outcomes, are good alternatives for some MPS students. Also, successful Charter schools can lead to innovation in teaching and increase parent/community involvement in their child’s education.

b.      What should the relationship be between the charter schools and MPS?

MPS and charter schools should work together to serve the community. Each fills a need, and student achievement is our common goal. Charter schools under contract with MPS should be held accountable for their contract which allows them greater autonomy in return for student achievement.

d.      Do you favor or oppose self-governed (teacher-led) schools? 

Again, I favor any learning institution model that is successful, accountable, and creating students who are college ready upon graduation. With our diverse community, there is no ONE type of school that fits all the needs of our Minneapolis children. 

 7.      A group of Northside residents have formed a Northside Achievement Zone, aiming to replicate some of the outcomes experienced by the Harlem Children’s Zone in New York.

a.                 How should the School Board respond?

This is a wonderful opportunity to reach out to this community and reconnect with them. Parents are a huge resource. They know their kids. They bring many skills and talents to the table. The Board should engage with these parents and address their concerns, value their initiative and work alongside them to improve their school communities. Whether that ends up looking like the Harlem Children’s Zone in NY or not, the Board and District is now engaged with, listening, responding, and valuing the community which creates trust and dedication to their MPS school.

b.                 Is it appropriate for the School Board to make special efforts or investments in a particular portion of the city?

Financial needs throughout the city of Minneapolis or not the same. When we can unequivocally point to an area of the city that contains a large percentage of the lowest 5% performing schools in the state, then we must act to “reinvest” in that community and make a commitment to truly “transform” their school programs, with community and parent support, and the necessary financial assistance to produce desired outcomes.

8.      With 65% students of color, the Minneapolis Public Schools face significant challenges with regard to integration. Some people prioritize integration efforts, while others argue that that it is more important to improve the quality of schools in low income neighborhoods. What is your opinion on this? Do you favor efforts to increase integration in the city schools?   If yes, what steps would you take to make that happen?

I believe that integration IS improving the quality of schools in all of our neighborhoods. It goes hand in hand with student achievement and our students’ success in the future. We must learn to live in a global society, to react to one another as people, as unique individuals, not as black and white and Asian and Hispanic. This benefits NO ONE! However, it is not entirely up to the school district to make this happen. There are other boundary and neighborhood planning issues that are not within the control of MPS. We must partner with the City and Park Boards and other Minneapolis government agencies to address the issue of city-wide integration.

9.      Improving governance of our public schools is a big topic of discussion.

a.      What in your opinion are the main governance challenges for public education?

How do you measure success and create accountability within a public education governing body? There are a number of factors beyond the control of any governing body that create roadblocks to achieving goals and stifle efforts to deliver positive change. As long range planners for a school district, many times results aren’t realized for a considerable length of time, making it difficult to evaluate decisions made by these governing bodies. Another challenge is the significant pressures and “blame” directed at individual members of a governing body who are, on the most part, volunteering their time.

c.                 Are there different governance models that you believe are worth exploring?

There are a number of different governing models that other urban districts have utilized with mixed results. Mayoral control, elected school board, board of directors appointed by a mayor, an elected school board that has one full time paid Chief Operating Officer are a few examples. I would explore models that have been implemented for a decade or more in urban school districts, look at the effect the model has had on student achievement, and look at community support and involvement in the district.

d.                 The Governor has recommended that the Minneapolis and St. Paul school districts be managed by the cities’ mayors. What is your opinion of this recommendation?

The research I have reviewed does not see an impact on student achievement with this model. It seems that governance from the top of the city government food chain would create a lot of bureaucracy. How would the Mayor function within the district, attending parent advisory committee meetings, attending area meetings, reaching out to parent organizations, etc. There is an advantage to a business model for running a school district, however, tens of thousands of children, parents, and community members want to have input in their child’s education. I imagine there would still be individuals appointed to work in the school district on a micro level, as the Mayor hardly has time to take on that task. Elected school board members are typically engaged with their community and have state government mandated authority to run the district’s public education system – they have no other governing responsibilities like the Mayor.

10.  Your role in the school board

a.      How do you define the role of a school board member?

The Minneapolis Board of Education not only governs the schools. It is the tie that binds all the Areas/Zones and schools together to create interconnectedness within our District. Although we divide ourselves into three areas/zones, we are one district with a goal for all of our students to achieve academic success. Equality of education within MPS must be addressed at the school board level. I see my role on the school board as a strategic planner, a support system for our Administrative staff, an advocate for our District, and part of a collaborative effort – with students, parents, communities, teachers, and staff – to do what is best for MPS. I do not micro manage. I must have faith in the Administrative staff, teachers, and school site staff to govern and teach to the highest standards. The School Board must be forward thinkers, long-range planners, and we should be community builders, working within MPS to engage parents.

b.      How much time each week do you expect to spend on school related matters?  

I would expect that I spend between 10-15 hours a week (on average) on school board related matters.

11.  Finally, what does success in the Minneapolis Public Schools look like to you.

Integrated schools, increased student achievement using better ways to measure this achievement, financial stability, positive teacher/district relations, higher standards for our teachers, staff, AND students, and a much higher level of parent and community support and engagement within MPS.