St. Paul panel stresses importance of closing achievement gap

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Putting students first is among the most important things to be done if ever the Black-White student achievement gap is to be closed, several education professionals and advocates agreed at a recent public exchange of ideas on the subject. Higher Ground Academy Founder-Director Bill Wilson, St. Paul Public Schools Superintendent Valeria Silva, Minnesota State Representative Carlos Mariani (DFL-St. Paul), St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman, and St. Paul Federation of Teachers President Mary Cathryn Ricker addressed the issue during a 90-minute education panel discussion November 3 at Macalester College.

Based on Minnesota statewide math and reading test scores, the educational achievement gap between Blacks and other students of color and Whites starts at around 30 percentage points as early as third grade and continues to widen the remainder of their school years. “We do well with many students,” but not with Black students, admitted Silva. “We have to start owning that our African American students are not achieving the gains they should be.”

Many Black children “cannot see the return on investment… They are discouraged” by school, noted Wilson, who added that more early childhood programs are needed. “The teaching of children must start at least at six months [of age and] then go forward.”

If the gap were reversed and White students performed academically poorer than Blacks, Mayor Coleman believes “there would be a riot.”

Said Ricker, “I believe every student should have a high school diploma” no matter how long it takes.

“The achievement gap exists because of a disconnect between students and teachers,” believes Wilson.

“I’m not an educator but a politician and policymaker,” said Mariani, executive director of the Minnesota Minority Education Partnership (MMEP), which since 2001 has annually tracked the academic progress of Blacks and other students of color.

The 2009 MMEP report noted that the chances of students of color “successfully graduating from high school…are not much improved from eight years ago.”

Mariani agreed with Wilson that educators “making connections” with both students and their parents is “how you close the gap.”

“There’s no silver bullet,” said Coleman, adding that developing “out-of-school programs” at local libraries and parks is needed. Because the overall population in Minnesota is becoming “less White and more diverse,” closing the achievement gap is becoming increasingly important for Minnesota’s economy, whose workforce needs to be “highly educated,” Coleman said. To help close the gap, “It takes everyone [in the community] to take a role.”

“This is an urgent matter,” Silva said, “but not just for us as educators. [It’s also urgent] for everybody that is working to improve the quality of life of students and families in the city.”

The superintendent pointed out that education “is not a priority” nationwide as well as in Minnesota. “Education is not cool in America.”

But last week’s panel might have been a “preaching to the choir” experience for many of the 150-175 persons in attendance, who were either students studying education or persons working in education. That’s how it looked to Macalester Humanities, Media and Cultural Studies Professor Leola Johnson
“They [the panelists] are talking about things that people in the audience already agree with,” Johnson said. “What we actually need to do is to persuade people who don’t agree, but those people don’t show up at forums like this.”
Nonetheless, each participant on last week’s achievement gap panel “is clearly committed to doing their part [in] solving this problem,” noted Ricker.

“We all came here saying, ‘This is what we all are doing to solve this problem,’ and we only got to scratch the surface on what we actually are doing.

“If anything, this gave me the opportunity to continue the conversation with everyone here,” Ricker said. “We need to have the right conversation.”
Wilson says he’d suggested further meetings with Silva, Mariani, Coleman, Ricker and others to work on solving the gap problems: “I am going to call the mayor and ask if he would host that meeting.” He also urged a closer look at area charter schools such as his Higher Ground Academy in St. Paul.

“We have a population that is 85 percent East African, and we are making AYP [annual yearly progress] every year,” Wilson pointed out. “Let’s sit down and talk about what we are doing, and we’ll get some answers from others. If we’re really serious about that, I think that is going to be done.”

“There are so many issues here, but for me the primary issue was to really encourage this community to embrace the necessary competencies to build a great multi-racial community,” said Mariani. “Our inability to do that is one of the big things that are hurting our kids in our schools. They don’t feel a part of this system in so many ways.”

On the day after last week’s general elections, which resulted in a changeover of power from Democrat to Republican in both the Minnesota House and Senate, Mariani expressed concerns about future education funding.

“While money shouldn’t be the total answer, it’s very difficult to do new things without the resources as well,” he said. “I think that the new majority has made it clear that not only will there not be any new resources, but actually there will be less.

“[It] wasn’t perfect under Democratic control either,” the DFL legislator noted, but he’s uncertain if “the new political realignment will further the discussion of multi-racial competency, equality and equity. I think it is going to be really tough.”

“I think there is a real danger that [the achievement gap issue] will be pushed back” among legislative priorities, Johnson said. “We’ve got people who have come to power now who ran on getting rid of the Department of Education and who really would love to privatize everything. I think that there is a real possibility that, at the very best, what we are going to get is gridlock and stalemate.”

“I think if we put all of our ideas in one place, we really can accomplish a lot,” concluded Silva. “If there is any place in this country where we can close this achievement gap, it is in St. Paul. I really believe that.”

Charles Hallman welcomes reader responses to challman@spokesman-re corder.com.