State’s most diverse cities aim to close student achievement gaps

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How do the Minneapolis and St. Paul plans compare?

It is not a secret that on average there is an achievement gap between students of color and White students in both the Minneapolis Public Schools (MPS) and the St. Paul Public Schools (SPPS) districts. For example, in SPPS, the 2006 graduation rate for Caucasian students was 87.1 percent, while African American students’ graduation rate was 74 percent.

To address this disparity, Dr. William Green and Dr. Meria Carstarphen, superintendents of MPS and SPPS respectively, have embraced the responsibility to ensure high academic achievement for all students, as well as to close the achievement gap between student groups. Both districts have engaged in extremely rigorous processes to design a Strategic Plan (Plan) delineating proposed action steps to provide an improved education for all students.

SPPS completed their 2006-2011 Strategic Plan for Continued Excellence together with a detailed Implementation Guide that includes a specific Measurable Outcomes and Data Guide. The 2007 Annual Report on Curriculum, Instruction and Student Achievement demonstrating their accountability to the public is now available.

At the MPS school board meeting on December 11, 2007, a set of nine recommendations was adopted that will serve as the framework for their Strategic Plan. They are now in the process of developing a planning guide and finalizing their planning measures. MPS’s completed Plan will be unveiled in the spring.

The intensive months-long process that both districts undertook to develop their Plans was very similar. They gathered extensive data via surveys and meetings with community members, staff and students as well as from individual conversations people had with the superintendents and other senior administrators.

They researched best reform practices used by various school districts around the country; and they analyzed the data to develop recommendations. Each district benefited from the assistance of community partners, and MPS had assistance also from the consulting firm of McKinsey & Company.

The SPPS Plan presents five goals, 10 strategies, and 12 measurable outcomes for implementing, achieving and measuring a premier education for all. The five goals are: 1) ensure high academic achievement for all students; 2) raise expectations for accountability; 3) accelerate the path to excellence; 4) align resource allocation to district priorities; and 5) strengthen relationships with community and families.

MPS’ nine recommendations — also very similar to SPPS’ — fall in three broad categories: 1) increase equity, expectations and achievement; 2) strengthen relationships; and 3) focus on resources.
The measurable outcomes delineated by both districts are also very similar. For example:

MPS: By 2012, 80 percent of all MPS students will score proficient or higher on MCA Math and Reading; 80 percent of all MPS students will reach the threshold score on college entrance exam; and race and income achievement gaps will be reduced by 75 percent.

SPPS: By 2012, improve MCA-II proficiency for student groups when compared to peers statewide; accelerate MCA-II annual growth rates of student groups.

With respect to racial disparities, one of the recommendations in the MPS Plan specifically addresses that issue — “identify and correct practices and policies that perpetuate the achievement gap and institutional racism in all forms.” Detailed action steps as to how MPS will accomplish this goal are not presently available.

Although the SPPS’ Plan does not highlight any specific ethnic group in their 10 Strategies, the implementation of their Plan to date clearly demonstrates that they are focusing on closing the achievement gap between African American students and others.

For example, in August 2007, the Transitions Initiative for engaging and educating at-risk African and African American students was announced.

Regarding SPPS’ Strategy H — “recruit, hire, retain and promote diverse staff” — a new program was recently announced to achieve this strategy, St. Paul Teaching Fellows. “It is an innovative approach to raising academic achievement and closing the achievement gap, by recruiting and training highly qualified diverse individuals from a variety of professional and academic backgrounds to make a difference where they are needed most — in the classroom,” noted Norah Barrett, site manager for the program.

In addition, SPPS will soon implement its SAHAN initiative, which is a grant that specifically targets African American males at school-site level. Starting from kindergarten through college preparation, African American males will receive gender-specific education that will not only close the achievement gap, but also prepare them to succeed in life.

At a public meeting on January 10, Dr. Carstarphen reiterated her commitment to ensuring a premier education for all — and she emphasized all. “Any child and any family that lives in any zip code in the city of St. Paul [will] get an opportunity to get an education at SPPS,” she said.

“What we learned after one year in the district is that we have great pockets of success in SPPS, and that we also have great challenges ahead — challenges that are in some people’s mind huge. But we have talent and team to overcome just about anything we want to do.

“We have all the right people to be able to make SPPS an excellent school system. We need to figure out how to raise the bar for all students so we don’t have an achievement gap,” Carstarphen affirmed.

Dr. Carstarphen asked families to help get students ready for learning. “Let your child read to you; let your child take a book and talk through what they see; reduce screen time — TV, video games. Read to them, write, draw, tell them a story, talk to them — don’t yell— and listen.”

St. Paul Network of Education Action Teams (NEAT) organized the public reception on January 10 at which Dr. Carstarphen spoke. NEAT is a nonpartisan volunteer group of parents and neighborhood leaders committed to support excellence in St. Paul’s public education.

“NEAT also provides a forum for parents to help shape key policies that will bring equity for children of color and decrease the achievement gap in our schools,” stated NEAT’s president, Jacquelyn Thomas. She invites parents of students enrolled in the SPPS to register with NEAT.

To obtain a copy of the SPPS Strategic Plan for Continued Excellence documents, call the Office of Community Relations at 651-767-8110. For more information on NEAT, go to their website, www.St.PaulNeat.org, or call 651-285-7185. For more information on the St. Paul Teaching Fellows Program or to apply, visit www.saint paulteachingfellows.org or call 651-767-8198. The priority deadline is January 22.

For questions regarding the MPS Strategic Plan, please call the Communication Office at 612-668-0230.

Jennifer Holder welcomes reader responses to jholder@spokesman-recorder.com