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Closing the gap: School board considers new programming to help boost test scores

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Bethany Wesley

BEMIDJI — A special school board meeting on Wednesday focused on how to close achievement gaps.

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Bemidji Area Schools principals presented their anticipated recommendations for closing the achievement gaps for American Indian students, special education students and those receiving free or reduced lunch.

“This was really important,” Superintendent Jim Hess said following the meeting. “I have looked forward to this night for some time ... (Administrators) are really invested in their proposals and they feel pride. They’ve worked with their staff in developing them and they really believe this will make things better for kids.”

The discussion did not result in action. Instead, the school board set a special meeting for 6:30 p.m. Monday with the intention of taking action on the recommendations once additional information — such as costs — can be more carefully evaluated.

Hess called that cost-analysis an “investment model.”

“The cost is having kids not succeed and the cost is having the achievement gap,” Hess said. “Investment is what we’re going to do, so our kids can be successful.”

The discussion is a continuation of an October work session when the board discussed at length its achievement gap goals.

Like all other Minnesota districts, Bemidji Area Schools is adjusting to a new way of measuring school success. Whereas No Child Left Behind stated a goal of having all students being completely proficient in math and reading by 2014, a federally approved alternative for Minnesota instead measures not just proficiency, but also student growth, graduation rates and progress in closing achievement gaps.

Districts now must reduce their 2011 achievement gaps by 50 percent by 2017.

For Bemidji Area Schools, that results in a focus on American Indian students, special education students and those receiving free or reduced lunch.

Recommendations

Recommendations came from administrators at each school level.

For Bemidji High School, staff recommended two new electives, both limited to 16 students: a 10th-grade English course on literacy and an 11th-grade grade science test heavy in math applications.

Both, to be added this coming term, would aim to serve the “bubble” students, those that are close to passing state-mandated tests but fall just short.

“Those students that are partially meeting standards on those tests,” said assistant principal Ranae Seykora. “We can pinpoint those students and give them the boost that they need so they can be successful on the MCAs this spring.”

Another proposal is an extension of a program offered last summer to special-education students. An incentives program was used to maintain their attendance: gift cards, coupons, even Netbook, a small laptop, for those who achieved perfect attendance.

“We had 54 students attend, we had over a 90 percent attendance rate,” said high school principal Brian Stefanich. “We also saw great results. We had over 41 credits earned last summer.”

At Bemidji Middle School, the recommendations include adding for this year one section of a mathematics-preparation course at each course level.

Longer term, principal Drew Hildenbrand would like to implement a new program — Scholastic Math 180 — to serve 36 seventh- and eighth-grade students in a yearlong pre-algebra course.

A third recommendation would have math tutors working with 30 students, from all three grades, for math and reading sessions throughout the day.

At elementary schools, principals recommended hiring math interventionists who would collaborate with teachers to develop math programs that respond to individual student needs.

Timing

Because there are recommendations proposed to begin yet this year — at the high school, the next term begins Jan. 27 and the elementary principals request 6-8 weeks with their interventionalists before the April MCAs — timing is important.

The school board quickly recognized it could not wait to act until their next regular meeting, set for Jan. 27, without disrupting students’ schedules, so they set a special meeting for Monday.

“This is outstanding work,” Hess said at the conclusion of the meeting. “You’re right on track. This is what we need to do.”

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