St. Paul Aims To Close The Learning Gap

James Walsh and Myron P. Medcalf, Star Tribune (Minneapolis-St. Paul), August 23, 2007

Saying the time for excuses is over, St. Paul Schools Superintendent Meria Carstarphen on Thursday insisted that St. Paul can eliminate the achievement gap between minority students and white students, if the community, parents, foundations and city leaders join together in the effort.

When asked how St. Paul can solve a problem that is dogging schools across the country, Carstarphen pointed to a recent push to get about 500 at-risk eighth-graders ready for high school in just a few months.

“This really is about having the will to change our practices with certain groups of kids,” she said. “We need to teach them all.”

In the program called Transitions Initiative, school officials are using a six-month, $155,000 planning grant to bring together community leaders, the mayor’s office and foundation officials to map out a strategy to close the gap between white students and African and black students.

Educators would then go after the additional funding that would be needed to launch the plan to close the gap over five years.

Carstarphen said the first phase focuses on the achievement gap of black students because it is the widest in the district, but the strategy will eventually be applied to other groups of students.

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In St. Paul, just 26 percent of black students taking the state math test in 2007 were deemed proficient, or at grade level. And only 36 percent were proficient on the reading test. By comparison, 67 percent of white students were proficient in math and 76 percent were proficient in reading. According to 2005 data, just 48 percent of black students graduated in four years, compared with 75 percent for white students.

But Carstarphen said it is not an intractable problem. St. Paul needs to marshal the will, the belief and the resources to do something about it, she said.

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As an example of finding a will to find a way, Carstarphen pointed to the St. Paul schools’ work with 519 eighth-graders who were identified last spring for not having enough credits to move on to high school this fall. Despite scheduling problems and a shortage of teachers to do the extra work, officials began working with kids immediately.

By the end of the year, 175 eighth-graders had caught up. The district referred 344 students into a high school summer prep program, working closely with their parents. At the end of the six-week summer session, 274 more students had earned enough credits to move on.

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The national drumbeat to cut the gap between white students and minority students is growing louder.

No Child Left Behind, the federal education accountability law, now uses testing not only to judge the progress of schools but also to examine groups of students broken down by race, economic status and special needs.

[St. Paul Mayor Chris] Coleman said Thursday that he is dedicated to doing what he can.

Since taking office last year, he has hired six people—30 percent of his staff—to work on education initiatives. He said the city will contribute to the Transitions Initiative by providing buses to transport kids to after-school activities—as well as working to bring in more money for education and adding computers to some of the city’s libraries.

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