Column: Helping low-income kids succeed

What does it take to help students from low-income families succeed?

Joe Nathan

Joe Nathan

One hundred thirty-one Minnesota district and charter public schools have just earned an important state award because they have answers.

They have earned the Minnesota Department of Education designation of “reward schools.”

They include six Anoka-Hennepin elementary schools: Adams, Eisenhower and Hoover in Coon Rapids; Lincoln and Wilson in Anoka; and Monroe in Brooklyn Park.

This is the most for any district in the state.

Other area schools receiving the honor included Beacon Academy in Maple Grove, DaVinci Academy in Blaine and Spectrum High School in Elk River.

Brenda Cassellius, Minnesota commissioner of education, released information this week showing that these schools are among the state’s top 15 percent of the 853 Minnesota public schools receiving federal funds to help students from low-income families.

These awards were part of a Minnesota Department of Education announcement showing that many of Minnesota’s schools are making progress on statewide tests.

What I heard over and over in talking by phone or email with more than 25 district and charter leaders around the state were several things:

• Everyone in the school believing that they can make a big difference is vital.

• Success comes in part from regular measurement to see which students are gaining the expected skills and knowledge.

• After assessing students, it’s important to give some students additional assistance. Young people learn at different rates.

• There’s no single best curriculum.

• Many of the most effective schools have found ways to work closely with families.

• It is not necessary to “teach to the test.” A rich, engaging curriculum, plus other strategies mentioned above, helps young people make progress.

A list of all Minnesota schools receiving these federal funds, and their MDE designation, is available here.

Here is some of what I heard from leaders at some of the schools that the Minnesota Department of Education is honoring.

Monroe Elementary has won the award three times. Mary Wolverton, Anoka-Hennepin associate superintendent for elementary schools, wrote via email about Monroe.

“The first thing Monroe has done is create Gears Time, which is a schoolwide intervention block,” she wrote.

“Other schools are building off that model. This makes it a priority to intervene with students early and often.

“The second thing is a strong coaching component support(ing) a deep understanding of teaching to the state standards.

“Third is a high level of parent engagement. Monroe is a very community-based school, even though it is one of our schools in the Northwest Suburban Integration School District and brings in students from outside the district.

“Fourth is teachers have really embraced first best instruction with differentiation.

“This is a blend of instruction that starts with whole group and then small groups focused on the needs of learners in the group.

“I think the integrated approach with a STEM curriculum helps as well.” .

Anoka-Hennepin Superintendent Dennis Carlson, responded via email to the fact that six of the district’s elementary schools were honored.

“We are doing a great job of educating poor students and students of color …,” he wrote.

“There is nothing better than good instruction in the classroom, and that’s what we are seeing.

“We have also put in place a pretty good backbone of student support.

“They are asking me, why, as a district, are we achieving these kinds of results.

“Our graduation rate is good. Our drop-out rate is excellent and our continuation rate is excellent.

“We help kids get their diploma or their GED. Our numbers are some of the best in the state.

“I think it’s one of the distinctive characteristics of the people who moved here.

“These are people who want a decent house at an affordable cost, low taxes and a good education.

“They are also people who are highly engaged in their children’s education.

“Even if they are poor, they are engaged in their kid’s education. They want them to succeed.

“They want to come into our district, and we can’t take them all. We don’t have enough space.

“We hook parents early in ECFE and learning readiness programs. They see that they are welcome and respected in those programs, and they stay with us.

“Even if kids are poor, they can be academically ready for college, which is a huge benefit for kids who are poor.

“If you have a solid early learning program and an attainable goal of early college, you are truly preparing students for life.

“For those who don’t want college, we are working with employers in the community to hook them up with good jobs while they are still in high school so they can get a start.

“Our concern is lack of funding. We haven’t had funds to meet inflationary needs for about 12 years.

“We will be cutting $8 million for next year.” .

Mary Olson, communications director of the Anoka-Hennepin, noted, “Only schools that receive federal Title I funding for educating high percentages of students in poverty were eligible for the designations.

“In Anoka-Hennepin, all Title I funding is directed to elementary schools, so no middle or high schools were eligible.”

Terry Moffatt is the academic director at DaVinci Academy, a charter school in Blaine, that also received the award.

In a phone interview, she explained that to be successful, it’s not necessary to “teach to the test.”

She described the school’s core knowledge curriculum where, for example, students read, write, cook and do art projects about Egypt or the Middle Ages.

These projects “help students see the value of basic skills in understanding ideas that interest them,” Moffatt said.

Vanessta Spark is principal at Spectrum High School, a charter in Elk River. The school has about 500 students, 20 percent of whom are from low-income families.

She responded via email, “Spectrum High School is proud to have achieved the distinction of being chosen as a Reward school in the state of Minnesota.

“We attribute much of our success to the luxury of scheduling students for an eight-period day, which allows Spectrum to provide daily math coaching and separate reading and writing courses for our students. In addition, our focus on high student expectations and small class sizes, contribute equally to the success of our school.”

Scott Peterson, principal at Cambridge Intermediate School, explained in a telephone interview that about 40 percent of the school’s students are from low-income families. He thinks the school’s success comes from several things.

“We believe a school can make a big difference,” he said. “We have academic coaches helping teachers.

“Student assistance teams meet at least twice a month. Those teams look at data. We focus on specific interventions that are needed to help student needs.”

“It’s a second helping of assistance for those who need it.”

Asked if the school is “teaching to the test,” Peterson said: “No. We teach to state standards. If we do that, the students will do well.”

These are among the 131 schools statewide that were given the “reward school” designation.

The commissioner also praised 27 schools whose scores previously landed them at the bottom but have now made enough progress to have their low-performing designation removed.

Cassellius told me in a phone call that she hopes to make much more use of the state’s most effective district and charter public schools.

This might be, for example, via summer workshops with other schools. That’s a very good idea.

Progress is possible. These schools are helping show how it can be done.

Editor’s note: Joe Nathan, formerly a Minnesota public school teacher and administrator, directs the Center for School Change. Reactions welcome, joe@centerforschoolchange.org.

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