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Northfield looks at options to close achievement gap

  • Article by: Erin Adler
  • Star Tribune
  • July 2, 2013 - 3:16 PM

After a six-month community discussion about which school-year calendar would work best, Northfield Public Schools decided in late May to stay with a traditional calendar through the 2014-15 school year.

But they’re not done talking. On Monday, the school board will hold a work session to discuss the achievement gap and “summer slide” and how each affects Northfield students.

The motivation to discuss the achievement gap came from the district and also was raised by parents attending the calendar meetings, said Mary Hanson, the district’s director of teaching and learning.

“While they may not have been in favor of changing the calendar, [parents] are aware and concerned about the achievement gap,” said Hanson.

In December, the district proposed switching to a “balanced calendar” concept for the 2013-14 school year to better align breaks with high school semesters and have more days of instruction before standardized tests in the fall, said board Chairwoman Ellen Iverson.

The balanced calendar would have started school in early August. But the majority of parents who showed up at January meetings were against the idea, said Iverson.

The district then decided to take a step back and look at many options, holding three community meetings during the months of March through May to discuss seven calendar ideas.

Again, however, a straw poll and parental input showed that a majority wanted to stay with the traditional calendar, though “there was a fraction of people interested in something else,” Iverson said.

With two colleges in town, “A lot of families’ plans revolve around a traditional calendar,” said Iverson.

“I think the mainstream objection in Northfield is ‘don’t touch summer. Don’t touch one day of it … Leave the calendar exactly as it is,’ ” said Kathie Galotti, a parent who attended two of the three calendar meetings.

Ideally, Galotti said she’d hoped the calendar conversation would result in a shorter school day and a longer school year, similar to how things are in the Boston area where she grew up.

In early May, Beth Berry, the high school coordinator of TORCH, a Northfield college access program aimed at low-income and Latino students, wrote a letter to the school board citing a concern that there was “a voice … not adequately present at the discussion, that of our low-income and minority children.”

Berry said she favors a schedule that’s closer to year-round school, with a shorter summer break. The calendar would serve all students better, especially low-income kids who don’t have access to summer camps and enrichment, she said.

“Basically, the studies have shown that the greatest regression over summer is among low-income students,” Berry said.

Hanson noted that about 26 percent of Northfield kids qualify for free and reduced meals, and about 8 percent are English language learner (ELL) students, mostly Spanish speakers.

Berry said that there are 260 kids in kindergarten through eighth grade who attend the district’s six-week summer program, called Summer PLUS. About 15 TORCH students work with the program, Berry said.

Monday’s session is a chance for the board to “clarify our thinking” around the achievement gap, review existing summer and early childhood programs and discuss new ideas to support students, Iverson said, “rather than focusing just on a school calendar.”

Nicole Linder, a parent who attended the calendar meetings, was in favor of keeping a traditional calendar. She said she wasn’t willing to give up summer plans when there was no evidence presented that any of the other options would benefit the kids most affected by the achievement gap.

“I’m all for having an equal playing field for all the kids,” Linder said. “But I’m not willing to sacrifice family time if it’s not going to make a difference.”

Still, “We thought there should be further discussion about what would most help those kids,” she said.

Hanson noted that the summer slide “does affect all students,” though certain demographics struggle more to catch up than others.

She hopes the discussion will result in “more awareness for the community and then some direction of where to go next.”

 

Erin Adler • 952-746-3283

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