Dayton's Bluff labored to erase the achievement gap, only to see progress undone. Now, it's regrouping.
At Dayton's Bluff Elementary in St. Paul, education happens in the dentist's chair. It happens when a crisis counselor slips a mother a voucher to help pay this month's rent. It happens when the nurse practitioner prescribes a cold remedy before sending a child back to class.
With these extraordinary efforts and millions of dollars in outside support, Dayton's Bluff managed to do what few urban schools have. It didn't just narrow the achievement gap between white and minority children. It erased it.
School leaders said it took strong leadership, teacher commitment and $54 million given over 14 years through a partnership of St. Paul Public Schools and the Amherst H. Wilder Foundation. In 2010 the school's minority students actually outperformed white students on state math tests.
Books featured the school. The U.S. secretary of education visited. But before the success story could be copied elsewhere, the ending changed. In 2011, students' math test results plummeted in the wake of school leadership changes and an economy that made the student body even more transient.
"I could give you 200 reasons," new Principal Steve Flucas said. "But it's not about giving excuses. It's about setting up this school for success."
Dayton's Bluff's experience shows the promise of the decades-long battle to get minority and white students on equal ground academically. But it also shows the vulnerability of even intense efforts like this. Schools can achieve tremendous gains, but can they sustain them? And at what cost?
The question matters deeply in Minnesota, which has one of the widest achievement gaps in the nation. White Minnesota students scored among the top 15 states on the recent National Assessment of Educational Progress, while low-income, black and Hispanic students scored in the bottom third in reading scores.
The gap persists despite some dramatic action on the state and national level. The No Child Left Behind law penalized schools that failed to meet performance targets for minority students. But changes haven't gone deep enough, say advocates for minority students.
"I think that the country as a whole has not done nearly what they can do to help close the achievement gap," said Daniel Losen, the director of the Center for Civil Rights Remedies at UCLA. "The higher the graduation rate is, the less crime there is, the less need for social service agencies. When we don't educate, we wind up incarcerating."
The success story
Dayton's Bluff Elementary is nestled in the rolling hills just 2 miles east of the state's Capitol building.
Murder, gang wars and drug busts regularly unfold in the alleys behind historic boarded-up homes. The chaos has followed children into class.
"Parents would walk right into the middle of a class and start berating and screaming at teachers," said former Principal Von Sheppard, who was principal from 2001 to 2005.
Sheppard's arrival came four years into an intensive campaign by the St. Paul-based Wilder Foundation to combat the impact of poverty on schoolchildren. The foundation partnered with St. Paul Public Schools to provide an array of in-school and out-of-school mental, physical and social services at three schools, including Dayton's Bluff.
Dayton's Bluff was attached to a community center, symbolizing the model's goal: for a community to wrap its arms around the school.
Achievement Plus, as the program is called, is based on a century-old model that pools community resources at a school, like the famous Harlem Children's Zone. There are up to 5,000 "community service" schools across the country, but few have gone as far as Dayton's Bluff.
"It is our mission to address the most vulnerable people in the east metro," said Bobbi Cordano, the Wilder Foundation's vice president of programs. "We don't try to shy away from these challenges."
Still, the challenges persisted years after the 1997 launch of Achievement Plus. In 2001, the school was ranked as one of the lowest performing in the state with barely a quarter of its students performing at grade level. The district took the unusual step of forcing all school employees to reapply for their jobs and replacing 80 percent of them.
Sheppard was brought in, and St. Paul administrators began a targeted initiative to improve the school.
Teachers received hours of extra training daily in techniques for teaching a poor, urban student population.
The principal pored over individual student data with teachers. The school's curriculum was rewritten to include higher standards.
Teacher turnover and student absenteeism rates slowed. Test scores steadily rose, with minority students academically matching or outperforming their white peers in 2007, 2008 and 2010.
In 2010, more than 67 percent of Dayton's Bluff's minority students were proficient in reading, compared to only 42 percent of minority students district wide.
Today, signs of success are obvious.
Top-performing students' work is plastered across the walls.
Students quietly walk the halls in straight lines.
A teacher tells a class of fifth-graders that they should be able to read 108 words per minute.
The support continues. In one office, a therapist plays house with a girl diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. In another, a first-grader is getting her first-ever tooth exam between classes.
"We're just one of the tools in the toolbox," said Christy Jo Fogarty, a dental therapist dressed in clean blue dental scrubs.
Then came the bad news
But 2011's test results have punctured the growing optimism that the right combination of structure and support to close the achievement gap had finally been found.
Only 44 percent of the school's minority students scored at the proficient level in math, way down from 75 percent in 2010. Reading scores also dropped.
The tailspin has sent the school and its supporters searching for explanations. The drop followed the departure of Dayton's Bluff Principal Andrew Collins, who was promoted to assistant superintendent.
Student mobility also increased. Administrators said almost half of the school's students transferred before the end of the last school year.
"When you see this kind of loss of jobs, destabilization of families, these kids are extremely mobile right now," said Cordano, with the Wilder Foundation.
Even a successful model comes down to the people involved, said Christina Theokas, the director of research at EdTrust who has studied Dayton's Bluff.
"Schools are very complex social structures with lots of people and kids and new staff and leadership," she said.
Martin Blank, the director of the Coalition for Community Schools, said it's not uncommon to see test scores rise and fall at schools like Dayton's Bluff.
"This is not short-term work," said Blank. "If it were, we'd have educated all poor kids by now. [The achievement gap] is really a tough, tough problem to solve. Until we recognize ... that it takes all of those assets and organizations to work together, [community schools] aren't going to succeed and even then it's a pretty daunting task."
For long-term results, Losen said struggling schools need more money to train and retain teachers and administrators, and housing policy must avoid "racial and social isolation."
"Brilliant leaders can turn around schools for a short period of time. But unless the whole system has changed and changed permanently, that improvement won't sustain itself."
Dayton's Bluff and its supporters are not giving up. At the school level, administrators this year added an hour of classroom time. School district officials still support the Achievement Plus program and will expand into two more schools.
Despite the disappointing scores, Cordano said the Wilder Foundation will keep supporting Dayton's Bluff and similar efforts.
"This is a stronger call to action to say, 'What are we going to do as a community to address the needs of these kids?'"
Daarel Burnette II • 651-735-1695 Twitter: @DaarelStrib