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Bemidji School Board discusses ways to improve student performance

BEMIDJI — Be bold.

That was the consensus Wednesday among local school leaders during a school board work session focused on improving student performance.

"What we need to do is think through what kinds of other initiatives might be there that might pay some big results," said Jim Hess, superintendent of Bemidji School District.

Bemidji’s school board members met with district administrators in a nearly two-hours-long meeting to analyze student performance and brainstorm ways to improve students’ academic performance.

One of many suggestions was to expand after-school programs to include more academics. For example, at Solway Elementary, which has an after-school science program, its fifth-graders led the district in last year’s state-mandated tests, as 86.2 percent of its students scored proficient on the science test.

Board members wondered whether the district should expand that program to other schools, or expand other existing after-school programs, perhaps even partnering with area nonprofits, to increase the level of academic curriculum involved in those programs.

"There are ways to do this, to imbed more instruction, learning, into the things that we have going on right now," Hess said.

Jordan Hickman, director of human resources, cautioned the district to be careful in focusing too heavily on after-school programming when so many of its students are unable to take part in those programs because they rely on district transportation to get them to and from their schools.

Toward the end of the discussion, talks focused on the benefits of early-childhood programs, as many of the district’s students enter kindergarten without any previous classroom experience.

Hess said the district now has four preschool programs they have put in place in the past three years for at-risk 4-year-old children, but the district is only able now to serve about half of the students who would be eligible for it.

School board member Ann Long Voelkner said the Bemidji district — and its taxpayers — should be commended in its foresight in implementing all-day every-day kindergarten for all its students, long before the state Legislature this past session dedicated state funding to offering those same opportunities throughout the state.

"Can we pull together something similar for early childhood? I think we can," Long Voelkner said.

School board member Jeff Haack said the school board does not plan the minute day-to-day instructional details and it does not dictate to teachers how to plan their lessons, but school board members are tasked with overseeing the district’s budget and priorities.

"I’d like to see some options for what it would cost for some extra time or extra resources, maybe it won’t be implemented, but what is the actual cost for these programs, what benefits will we get," Haack said. "Instead of us talking about specific mandates I don’t have any control over. I love to hear about all the different interventions but I can’t help with that. I can help with the budget and bigger-sized decisions."

School board chairman John Pugleasa said the district must be willing to accept some risk as it considers bold initiatives.

Hess told the board to "hold my feet to the fire" in expecting him to return with a list of ideas within 60 days, with the potential of implementing new plans as soon as the second semester of this school year.

"These kids have got one shot at kindergarten and one shot at the third grade," he said. "We have to give them our very best effort. We can’t wait."

the achievement gap

The discussion from school leaders followed a review of students’ proficiency trends as the district works toward closing the achievement gap among specific subgroups of children.

Across the state, districts are adjusting to a new way of thinking. 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 have goals of reducing their achievement gaps by 50 percent between 2011 and 2017.

"With No Child Left Behind, there were a lot of good things about it, but the notion that 100 percent of our children are going to be fully proficient by 2014 is an unattainable goal," Pugleasa said. "However it is an attainable goal to say we’re going to reduce by 50 percent our achievement gap."

For example, in 2011, 28.8 percent of the district’s special-education students who were tested in reading (grades 3-8 and 10) tested proficient in reading. For non-special-education students, 59.5 percent tested proficient for an achievement gap of 30.7, meaning that by 2017, the district’s goal is to have that gap narrowed to 15.4.

"This is something we’ve never done before. It’s so new to us, but it’s something we should be doing," said Kathy Palm, the district’s director of curriculum and administrative services. "I love the idea of looking at student growth. All students can learn, all students can grow, all students can be challenged."

For the Bemidji district, the priority will be on narrowing the gap between all students and those who receive special-education services, or free and reduced lunch, and American Indian students.

But any programs that might be implemented should have across-the-board effects, school leaders noted.

"This is all about what the school district can do to enable all kids to be successful," Long Voelkner said.

"The rising tide lifts all the ships," Hess added.