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‘We have an opportunity’: District aims to narrow achievement gaps

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BEMIDJI — Vince Beyl is encouraged by the recent discussion at the Bemidji School Board table.

Beyl, the director of American Indian Education for the Bemidji School District, was one of about a dozen school leaders who met last week to brainstorm ideas on how best to narrow existing achievement gaps, the disparities in student performance for specific subgroups.

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Minnesota school districts, under the waiver from No Child Left Behind, has until 2017 to narrow in half achievement gaps, based on 2011 numbers, for subgroups, such as American Indian and special education students, and those who qualify for free and reduced lunch.

“We’ve got some challenges,” Beyl said, speaking from his office late last week, two days after the nearly two-hours-long work session. “But as we move ahead, I think we have an opportunity.”

With nearly 1,000 Indian students composing almost 20 percent of the total student population in the district, the Bemidji School District is one of 72 in the state that receives Title VII funds, Beyl reported, noting that the percentage of Indian students can fluctuate 2 to 3 percent any given school year.

Through the 1972 Indian Education Act, districts are allocated additional funds to serve the unique needs of Indian and Alaska Native students.

The Indian Education program in Bemidji is managed by parent committee, which reviews and oversees goals, objectives, grant applications, initiatives, student test scores and more.

“(The Indian Education program is) one of the programs that I think is really a jewel in our school district, because our kids who are Native American kids do so very well because of the extra attention that they get and the interventions that are in place,” said Superintendent Jim Hess, during last week’s work session.

Services available include academic support, home/school liaison services, an open-door policy for all Indian students and their parents, counseling, post-secondary preparation, career exploration, summer programming, and an Ojibwe language class.

“We work to track the Native students, to make sure they’re successful and … working toward graduation,” Beyl said.

Successes exist

As the school district mulls a range of possibilities aimed at closing achievement gaps — such as expanded early-childhood and after-school programs — the district also highlighted several successes already existing.

For example, the 2011 achievement gap in math for students who qualify free and reduced lunch was 20.7 percent. That gap already had been narrowed to 12.5 by 2013, well on track to hit the district’s 2017 goal of 10.4 percent.

In reading, that same subgroup had a 19.6 percent achievement gap in reading in 2011 and it has been narrowed to 10.9 percent in 2013, on track to soon meet its 2017 goal of 9.8 percent.

“Free and reduced is an area that I am so proud of because when we look at achievement gaps generally nationwide, this is a huge area,” said Kathy Palm, Bemidji’s director of curriculum and administrative services. “For us, we do very well here.”

Beyl highlighted the 21st Century program as one of the reasons for the success. That program, managed and funded through grants submitted by Community Education, targets students who are struggling academically, socially and emotionally. Participants are recommended for the program by their teachers.

During the school year, it offers programming three days a week; in the summer, a six-week program meets four days a week.

John Buckanaga, youth services coordinator with Bemidji Community Education, said there were more than 500 students enrolled in the program in the 2012-13 school year. This past summer, there were 240 students in grades 1-8 and another 60 high-schoolers enrolled.

About 50 percent of the students involved are minorities and 63 percent qualify for free and reduced lunch.

“If those things weren’t in place, would those scores look the same?” Beyl said, including 21st Century among other successful initiatives. “Those programs deal with the core content — math, reading and writing – the same type of instruction as during the day.”

He presented for discussion a document from the State of Indiana on how it addresses eliminating achievement gaps in which it advocates for rigorous curriculum and high expectations for all students.

“Remedial’s not the answer,” Beyl said. “We have to expect more out of students.”

School administrators seemed to agree.

“Students do better if you challenge them instead of remediate them.” Palm said. “I think kids will strive to reach your expectations.”

The goals

As part of Minnesota’s waiver from No Child Left Behind, school districts are expected to narrow by half by 2017 the 2011 achievement gaps determined through standardized testing.

For the Bemidji District, that equates to narrowed gaps for special education and Indian students, and those students who qualify for free and reduced lunch.

Math

— 59.5 percent of non-special education students tested proficient in math in 2011; 28.8 percent of special education students scored proficient, creating a difference, or achievement gap, of 30.7 percent.

The goal for 2017, then, is to narrow that gap to 15.4 percent.

— 60 percent of white students tested proficient in math in 2011 while 33.7 percent of Indian students scored proficient, creating a gap of 26.3 percent.

The goal for 2017 is to narrow that gap to 13.2 percent.

— 65.6 percent of students who do not qualify for free and reduced lunch scored proficient at math while 44.9 percent of those who do qualify tested proficient, for an achievement gap of 20.7.

The goal for 2017 is to narrow that gap to 10.4 percent.

Reading

— 81.3 percent of non-special education students tested proficient in reading in 2011; 40.8 percent of special education students scored proficient, creating a difference, or achievement gap, of 40.5 percent.

The goal for 2017 is to narrow that gap to 20.3 percent.

— 79.3 percent of white students scored proficient in reading in 2011 while 56.1 percent of Indian students tested proficient, creating a gap of 23.2 percent.

The goal for 2017 is to narrow that gap to 11.6 percent.

— 85.3 percent of students who do not qualify for free and reduced lunch tested proficient at reading while 65.7 percent of those who do qualify scored proficient for an achievement gap of 19.6.

The goal for 2017 is to narrow that gap to 9.8 percent.

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