Gaylord, Minn., school's strategy pays off

  • Article by: KIM MCGUIRE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: May 13, 2012 - 9:22 PM

 State's next step is harnessing winning methods to close the gap.

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Brian Mumford worked with student Edgar Ledesma at Sibley East Elementary School in Gaylord, Minn.

Photo: Elizabeth Flores, Star Tribune

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GAYLORD, MINN. - In the world of education success stories, Sibley East doesn't often get mentioned. But maybe it should.

Over the past eight years, the rural school about 60 miles southwest of the Twin Cities has dramatically raised reading scores, most notably among elementary students who are learning English, about one-fourth of the student population. In fact, 79 percent of sixth-grade students were proficient in reading last year -- more than twice the statewide average.

"It's about everyone getting on the same page," said Sibley East Elementary Principal Mari Lu Martens. "And I think our staff is on the same page."

If getting an entire school on the same page is a challenge, imagine getting an entire state on the same page.

That's the next step in Minnesota's push to close the state's stubborn achievement gap between white and non-white students.

There is no shortage of programs attacking the achievement gap, but so far there's no common definition of success, or how to get it. In fact, a recent University of Minnesota survey identified 500 separate efforts in the Twin Cities alone.

"What that tells me is we have widespread recognition of the problem now," said Kent Pekel, executive director of the University of Minnesota's College Readiness Consortium. "Clearly, the pace of change is too slow given that kids are moving away from our schools or dropping out of schools every day. It is way past time being satisfied with the recognition of the problems. We need to do more."

The Strive partnership

The university is among the players now working to find common ground, along with the African American Leadership Forum and a coalition that includes General Mills, Target Corp., Minneapolis and St. Paul Public Schools and the United Way.

In an intensive look at how black students are academically faring in the Twin Cities, the forum came across an innovative program that could provide that common ground.

Known as the Strive Partnership, the program follows this strategy: Identify specific goals, come up with a common way to measure those goals, and do so by using a rigorous set of data that can be shared with everyone. Each community sets its own priorities for improving education for students "from cradle to career."

Since Strive's inception in Cincinnati, Ohio, in 2006, fourth-grade reading scores went up by 16 percent in Cincinnati Public Schools, 8th grade math scores rose by 24 percent and the graduation rate climbed by 10 percent. Houston, Portland, Boston and Seattle schools have adopted the Strive model, and schools from Red Wing to Grand Rapids in Minnesota are looking hard at it.

"The achievement gap is a crisis," said Robert Jones, senior vice president at the University of Minnesota and a member of the leadership forum. "We need a collective strategy to have a collective impact. Strive is one model that might work."

Beyond the Twin Cities

The Twin Cities group met several times last year and recommended adopting a partnership like Strive. Some members are now trying to determine what the focus and next steps should be.

Meanwhile, leaders in Itasca County are trying a Strive approach to boost student achievement.

Supported by the Blandin Foundation, a group visited Cincinnati last summer and launched an effort called Itasca Area Student Success Initiative.

"I think what really sold us was the road map piece," said Matt Grose, superintendent of Deer River School District. "It provided us a very clear framework for decision making. It's a very strategic way for us to address our issues, whether that is working with pregnant mothers or providing support to gifted and talented kids."

Still in its early stages, the next step for the Grand Rapids-area group is to come up with a data-driven way to measure whether their plan is working.

That's one of the most critical pieces of Strive, said Jeff Edmondson, managing director of the Strive Network.

Few schools in Minnesota share that kind of data now -- Minneapolis and St. Paul are exceptions. For now, Minnesota's standardized test scores are the primary measurement tool.

Getting results, attention

It was Sibley East's test scores that caught the attention of the Minnesota Business Partnership, which recognized the school's efforts two years ago. That brought attention to the rigorous screening system the school set up, testing struggling readers weekly on fluency and comprehension. Students who are learning English -- many of whom have family that work at Michael Foods' local poultry plant -- have additional safeguards in place.

The challenges Sibley faces helping those students are not unlike the ones faced by other Minnesota schools with significant numbers of students who haven't mastered English.

A united approach like the Strive network would give communities access to strategies that work for those students and many others, Edmondson said. And local businesses would have more confidence they were supporting initiatives that work.

"It gives great political cover to funders, both public and private, to find ways to invest in what gets results," Edmondson said.

"It's a pretty drastic departure from what we used to call in the nonprofit world 'the spray and pray approach' -- spray money on something and pray that it works."

Kim McGuire • 612-673-4469

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