How one high school is tackling the achievement gap

  • Article by: SHANNON PRATHER , Star Tribune
  • Updated: February 25, 2014 - 1:44 PM

Coon Rapids High tackles racial test disparities in five ways.

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Coon Rapids High biology teacher Nathan Hoekstra, right, talked with junior Beresford Jimmy, who was among those in class making a model of folding proteins. The school is putting a greater emphasis on having students talk and work in small groups, as opposed to listening to teachers all class long.

Photo: David Joles, Star Tribune

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It’s big bragging rights for the state’s biggest school district.

While the Twin Cities’ other large districts struggled to lessen the disparity between white and minority students’ proficiency in reading, math and other core subjects, Anoka-Hennepin surpassed goals set by the state. In math, the proficiency gap between white students and minority students dropped from about 22 percentage points in 2011 to 17 points in 2013. In science, it ticked down from 25 points in 2011 to 23 in 2013.

Shrinking the “achievement gap” is a formidable goal dissected and analyzed at the highest levels of government and education.

But how do you tackle it in the classroom?

Coon Rapids High School, like the rest of the district, has seen steady improvements. In some cases, the improvements are dramatic. Black students at Coon Rapids High increased their science proficiency from 20 percent in 2012 to 55 percent in 2013. The gap between black and white students was just 3.4 percent.

Principal Annette Ziegler spoke recently with the Star Tribune about the ways the school is trying to make headway. It’s also improving the classroom experience for all students, she said. The strategy includes a number of steps:

1. Eliminate prerequisites for honors and advanced-level classes.

If the goal is to attract more students to try advanced placement and honors courses, why tell them “no” when they try to enroll? Realizing that prerequisites and GPA requirements were ­deterring kids from trying more-challenging courses, administration eliminated them about five years ago.

“Why set up walls? Why put them in a box?” Ziegler asked.

While the percentage of students of color at Coon Rapids High has remained about 25 percent, the percentage of ninth- and 10th-graders of color enrolling in honors and AP courses has doubled. For example, in 2010-11 10 minority students enrolled in ninth-grade honors physical science. This year, 28 minority students are taking it.

There also have been efforts to individually recruit students.

“Teachers are encouraged to speak personally to all students who they think could succeed in an honors, advanced/AP course,” said Bjorn Lund­gren, Coon Rapids High School’s professional learning communities coordinator and teacher on special assignment. “There has been a specific schoolwide goal to make our enrollment in honors courses more equitable.”

2. Write what kids need to learn on the board every day. They’re called learning targets.

The point of class should never be a mystery. Clearly stating the goal each day ensures that everyone — students and teachers — stays on track. Teachers write the goals on the whiteboard or post them in the class. They’re usually “I statements.”

“It instills hope for students. Students now can identify that they may only need work in one learning target instead of feeling like they don’t understand the class in general,” Ziegler said.

3. Let students talk.

The old-fashioned class lecture where teachers talk for an hour and students listen is largely antiquated. To master concepts, kids need to talk it out and explain concepts to others.

“I get nervous as a principal if there is silence. If there is a certain level of volume and discussion, I know learning is occurring,” Ziegler said.

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