BRIDGING THE GAP: Low-achievers must get deliberate focus

By Chris Kieffer/NEMS Daily Journal

TUPELO – That high-poverty and high-minority student populations can have large-scale success in school is evidenced by so-called “90/90/90″ schools.
The term was first applied in 1995 to describe schools in Milwaukee in which at least 90 percent of the student body lived in poverty, at least 90 percent consisted of minorities and at least 90 percent met district or state academic standards.
It is now more broadly applied to high-performing schools with high numbers of minority or poverty students. Douglas Reeves published a paper on these schools in 2003 based on research conducted at the Center for Performance Assessment. In that paper, he noted common characteristics of these schools: “A focus on academic achievement, clear curriculum choices, frequent assessment of student progress and multiple opportunities for improvement, an emphasis on nonfiction writing and collaborative scoring of student work.”
The existence of such schools not only shows that success is possible, but it also reveals that schools must be deliberate in their efforts.
“We know that high-poverty, high-minority demographics is not a death sentence,” said Mike Walters, former Tupelo superintendent and now head of an education consulting company in Jackson. “The problem is how do you organize school so that kids can be successful regardless of demographics? That is where the work comes.”
One challenge is that low-income infants are exposed to much less vocabulary and far fewer educational resources than wealthier peers. As a result, they are already at a disadvantage by the time they enter kindergarten.
One possible solution would be to expand early-childhood education, something advocates are pushing for both the state and local communities to do.
In the meantime, it means schools must spend more time with those students once they do arrive on campus.
“If someone starts from behind in anything, unless they are naturally gifted, they will need specific help to reduce the deficit,” said New Albany Superintendent Charles Garrett.
This could mean having to rethink the traditional school schedule. Perhaps longer school days or shorter summers would help, educators say.
Claude Hartley, a member of the Mississippi Board of Education, said the achievement gap tends to widen during summer months. While students of means are enriching themselves with various camps or other learning opportunities that usually cost money, poorer students often are staying home. When the school year resumes, time must be spent refreshing them on what they had learned the year before.
Tupelo Deputy Superintendent Diana Ezell said a better system could be a model in which students attend school for five out of every six weeks, instead of getting a three-month break at one time. During the week when students aren’t in school, educators can provide special intervention to struggling students.
Meanwhile, schools may have to restructure the way they offer resources, perhaps using the best teachers for the lowest-performing students.
“To really close the achievement gap, you need to have a teacher who is an absolute star,” Garrett said. “You need to have a miracle worker to take kids who are behind and get them to do as well as those who are ahead.”
Tupelo Middle School Principal Kristy Luse said another important step is doing more to reach out to parents. Low-income and minority parents must feel comfortable in the schoolhouse, she said.
Furthermore, she said, when a teacher has trouble disciplining a student, it could be a good opportunity for that teacher to ask the student’s parent for advice.
“It is about calling the parents and saying, ‘I need your help because you are the parent and you are the expert with this child,'” Luse said. “It changes the conversation immediately.”
Ezell said that if schools are to close the achievement gap, high expectations are vital.
“We really have to believe all students can learn before they can, and if we don’t send that message to every student, they won’t,” she said.
Success, said education advocate Billy Crews, should be measured by how much schools boost students who were further behind. He compared it to a coach who is deemed more valuable when he or she wins a championship with a team that didn’t appear as talented.
“If we believe in the power and potential of a good education system, we ought to put emphasis on those who come to us from the lowest socioeconomic demographic,” Crews said.
chris.kieffer@journalinc.com