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Bemidji School Board OKs new courses, staff to narrow achievement gap

BEMIDJI -- Following a unanimous vote by the Bemidji School Board on Monday, steps now are being taken to add courses and teachers for the remainder of this school year with the intent of narrowing the achievement gap for American Indian students, special-education students and those who receive free and reduced lunch in the district.

New programming is planned, beginning as soon as two weeks from now, as Bemidji Area Schools embraces ideas aimed at improving student learning.

"It's not acceptable to do nothing," said Jim Hess, superintendent of schools, at Monday's meeting. "We have to do something."

With School Board approval in hand, school staff is now working toward implementing new classes and curriculum aimed at improving students' test scores and increase their overall learning.

The programs were recommended in a special School Board meeting on Thursday.

"(These were) really excellent responses, wide-ranging in some ways, but really focused and targeted in ways that will make a difference," said Bill Faver, School Board member. "I think it's going to be a very efficient use of resources and I'm predicting some real positive outcomes."

Two new courses are planned for Bemidji High School (MCA Test Prep and Applied Science Plus, planned to be heavy on math application); one additional MCA Prep courses for each of the three grades at Bemidji Middle School; and new math specialists are planned to be added at elementary schools.

While the elementary hires -- the equivalent of five and a half full-time teachers -- will likely be new hires, the course additions at the middle and high schools are planned to be additions to existing teachers' schedules, either by increasing part time hours, or by offering "overloads" (giving a teacher an additional course hour instead of preparatory time).

The cost for the new instructional time and staff is not yet known -- it depends heavily on the people hired for each position and how much experience they have -- but the given range is $160,000 to $287,000.

Monday's board vote follows a meeting Thursday where school administrators at each level recommended what they think would be most effective in narrowing achievement gaps. Districts must reduce their 2011 achievement gaps by 50 percent by 2017 under new Minnesota guidelines. For Bemidji Area Schools, that results in a focus on American Indian students, special education students and those receiving free or reduced lunch.

The new coursework and initiatives are aimed at doing just that, with a heavy focus on math.

They will be put in place immediately, as soon as staff is hired and/or identified.

"Time is ticking," Hess said. "We need to move ahead with this."