Superintendent Meria Carstarphen says it is possible to eliminate the achievement gap between minority and white students.
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.
Schools across the country are struggling to raise minority test scores and graduation rates. And the achievement gap between black and white students in Minnesota is among the widest in the nation.
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.
"It is the worst blemish on our work as public-school systems in this country," she said of the achievement gap. "We are killing our ethnic minorities and giving a life of no choices other than prison."
Just this week, Carstarphen and St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman traveled to New York City to look at ways the city and schools there work together to raise money and improve student achievement. On Thursday, Carstarphen called New York City a model for how schools and city government can -- and must -- work together.
Since 2003, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg has helped raise $185 million from private donations, in part to help close the city achievement gap. In recent years, black and Hispanic students have made gains in city and state achievement test scores at a rate two or three times higher than white and Asian students, said Stu Loeser, press secretary for Bloomberg.
He said some of the funding has been used to train principals who have been offered incentives to turn around tough schools.
Said Carstarphen: "We need shared beliefs about these groups of children, that we are not going to bend on -- that they are not needy, but worthy. That they are not special needs, but as special as any other children for whom we do a good job."
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.
Of the remaining students, 56 will be referred to the OnTrack Program, which could include online learning.
"It's called doing our job," Carstarphen said.