Witness to the possible: Good outcomes for students with challenges


My oldest daughter spent her first six years of classroom education at a school where some 85 percent of the kids spoke English as a second language and more than half qualified for the free and reduced-price school lunch program. 

Lucky her. Seriously.

Her school in Dearborn, Michigan, achieved terrific educational outcomes for a student body made up primarily of immigrants and first-generation Americans, most of them from low-income families. At the time that she finished the fifth grade, the school’s standardized reading scores from the Michigan Educational Assessment Program outpaced the state and school district averages.

Clearly the school succeeded with its challenged students, but with my daughter – the native English speaker – McDonald Elementary really excelled. She was reading at a high school level by the fourth grade and loving it.

I think about that experience when I hear Minnesotans talk about how some kids just can’t be expected to hit the mark in school because of language issues or income levels. As a group, we Minnesotans seem quick to make excuses for why students of color, in particular, lag behind. Or maybe we’re just quick to write them off.

As a researcher and analyst, I know by heart the numbers describing the standardized test score gaps by race and income for Minnesota’s students. I know we do worse than we should – and worse than many other states – when it comes to educating kids from the racial and ethnic groups other than “non-Hispanic white.”

With kids of color now constituting about one-fourth of Minnesota’s student population, that’s a problem for us all.

But since returning to my home state of Minnesota, I have found the numbers do not carry the same power as the story of the school my children attended.

The first year that Michigan’s schools participated in the state’s educational assessment program, our neighborhood elementary school did poorly. That was a few years before my daughter entered kindergarten, but I heard the story from the principal and the teachers.

School staff knew they had smart kids, but kids with challenges. The poor showing on the standardized test that first year, however, shocked the school into action.

The teachers and the principal overhauled the school’s approach, honing in on language as the key building block for education and organizing the school day so that students could cross over from their grade to another in order to learn reading and writing with other kids at their same level.

The teachers used the test scores to analyze where they were succeeding or not and to help them identify why – something that was done every year thereafter, too. It wasn’t a question of blindly teaching to the test but of using the test to guide effective education.

The results were startling. The experience – seeing my children succeed in an outstanding public school alongside so many English language learners and kids from low-income families – is unforgettable.

It was a fascinating demonstration of the possible.

Remarkable, really, that instead of finding excuses for the test scores, the crowd in Dearborn found solutions. We could use more of that. We could use that here, in Minnesota – from policy makers, district administrators, school staff, parents and voters.