Minnesota Education Commissioner Mary Cathryn Ricker visited Duluth this week on her four-day, four-city back-to-school tour, which she said is allowing her to highlight areas in the state where schools are meeting the academic, social and emotional needs of students in creative ways.
A Hibbing native, Ricker said she recognizes the problems schools in northeastern Minnesota and the rest of the state are facing — disparities in graduation rates, standardized test scores and attendance rates stratified by race or income level. According to state Department of Education test score data, Duluth’s achievement gap for black students was among the worst in Minnesota last year.
On Wednesday, after speaking with a group of future teachers in a “Teaching Indigenous Students” course at the University of Minnesota Duluth, Ricker spoke with Duluth public school leaders about full-service community schools — a model she thinks has potential to address those persistent achievement gaps in a holistic way. She discussed these issues with the Star Tribune Thursday in a phone interview. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
You’ve been saying that part of your job is to find places in Minnesota where schools or districts are finding success addressing problems that may be plaguing other schools in the state. Have you ever looked to Duluth in this respect?
One of the things I want to list off about what Duluth is doing is their commitment to full-service community schools. They started a full-service community school partnership about 20 years ago at Myers-Wilkins Elementary.
For those who might not know, can you explain what a full service community school is?
The school will look for deep and sustainable partnerships in the community to help pair up the expertise of the professionals inside the building with the expertise of people outside of the building to better meet the needs of students and their families. Every full service community school has a full-time coordinator who works on managing those partnerships.
One of the other important pieces is that the school itself does sort of a survey evaluation of what that school community needs. One school may decide that’s additional dental support, for example, where another school will decide it’s a robust after school program. Another school may decide it is different family engagement strategies.
The Star Tribune has done some number crunching, most recently looking at test score results showing lasting achievement gaps in areas across the state. Duluth, specifically, has seen ongoing disparities between students of different racial or socioeconomic backgrounds. Is this something that’s caught your attention or came up at all during your visit here?
It’s absolutely something that is on my mind every day. Every day, I am determined to make sure we are addressing those disparities and those gaps, that are very predictable. We have gaps in graduation that are predictable around race, ethnic background or family income levels. We have attendance rates that are predictable along those same lines. We have achievement gaps, and we have discipline disparities. When we try and address problems in isolation, we are not as successful as when we look at how those disparities and gaps are interrelated.
Lincoln Park Middle School is a great example of seeing how their discipline disparities were impacting their attendance — and then, of course, seeing how attendance was impacting achievement. They went to work on using restorative practices as a way to not just address discipline, but to also use it to deepen relationships among students and staff. What they found is in one year, they dropped their out-of-school suspensions by half.
Are these full-service community schools kind of the main thing you’re doing to address these problems? I don’t know if this is more of the local way to address it or a statewide approach.
It’s both. Every solution I propose has to get at both the predictability of these gaps and these disparities. And full-service community schools is a great example of something that can be both a local and a statewide approach. Locally, the work is done directly with students and their families. Statewide, we can serve as that support measure. We can serve as that educator of what a full-service community school is. We can provide support for pursuing full-service community schools. And then we can, as a state, invest in them, like we have in the past. We had a grant program that allowed schools to get some money to hire those coordinators to get started along the path of a full-service community school. And as a state, we could get there again to encourage this as one of a handful of ideas, of a menu of ideas, that can eliminate the gaps and disparities.
More broadly, are there any other new initiatives or teaching strategies in this region that’s seem to be having an impact?
I would say that one example that we’ve also seen in northeastern Minnesota is a really strong commitment to career and technical education and sort of reimagining what that is. I think those are really exciting opportunities for students to investigate career pathways that are another way of partnering with the community. I would also just point out that class I got to visit at UMD on indigenous education is a great example of how we sort of concentrate in an area to actually better meet the needs of all of our students.