Her son is just turning 5, but Anquinetta Phillips has no doubt that Xavier Withers has great things ahead.

Like other black parents attending a recent school choice fair for Minneapolis schools, she is certain that her child will succeed in a school district where almost four out of five American-born black students are not proficient in reading and only one in three graduates on time.

“He’s not going to be a statistic at all,” said Phillips, a Bloomington resident who is considering enrolling her son in a North Side district school.

Parental confidence aside, public pressure is intensifying on Minneapolis public schools to narrow the gulf between the academic success of its minority and white students — the achievement gap. While closing that gap is a nationwide and statewide priority, it is particularly urgent in Minneapolis, and it is particularly acute for the district’s black students.

Black students form the largest student bloc in Minneapolis schools, at close to 13,000 kids. While other groups demand attention — Latino and Indian student results also lag, for example — raising black student achievement will have the greatest impact on the district’s overall performance.

Despite years of attention, the gap persists. For black students, it widens after kindergarten. Black kindergartners enter school trailing whites by 21 percentage points in preliteracy skills. By the first state tests at the end of third grade, they trail by 54 percentage points in reading proficiency. That’s much higher that the statewide black-white reading gap, which was in the low 30s this year.

In a report on the state achievement gap released last week, Minneapolis fell short of its reading and math goals in almost every student category.

Further, a close look at the district’s numbers reveals a surprising fact: Poverty makes almost no difference for an American-born black student in his or her chances of graduating on time in Minneapolis schools.

White students in poverty graduate in four years at a higher rate than black students who are not poor, according to district data.

Even among black students not tagged with the labels usually linked to low performance — poverty, special education, English learner, or homeless-highly mobile — only 49 percent graduate in four years.

In response, the district is making a number of midyear adjustments to focus on students in high-poverty/high-minority schools and delve deeper into why students fall behind.

Parents ponder options

There are stories of success in Minneapolis schools. At Washburn High School, for example, Audrey DeVaughn last year became the school’s first International Baccalaureate diploma recipient and was an eight-time sports captain. She’s biracial, the daughter of a college professor and a market research consultant, and now attends Yale. Her father, who is black, co-chaired Washburn’s leadership council.

“I was really motivated by my parents. They had really high expectations for me to do my best in school,” she said. Having friends of the same achievement-oriented mind-set also helped, she said.

But another Washburn parent left the system bitter. Ralph Crowder is a frequent critic at school board meetings of how students of color are educated. His daughter graduated, he said, but it took her longer than four years because she had credits to make up.

Two weeks ago, he said, he withdrew his son from Washburn to stay with relatives in Maryland and attend a high-performing school there.

He believes the problems are systemic for black families. “I wasn’t valued. I wasn’t treated as a stakeholder, and it was full of stories of discrimination at every last turn of decisionmaking,” Crowder said. “For a black male parent, that was my experience. I can only imagine his experience in a classroom.”

Minneapolis parents can pick from a widening variety of charter school and suburban options, but many black parents keep their students in district schools despite the troubling numbers.

Studies have found little academic difference for poor Minneapolis students who enroll in whiter suburban districts. A few charter schools excel with poor black students; others flop.

“It’s alarming. It’s saddening. And it’s time to go to work,” said James Burnett, a North Side father of four, with two in district schools and two in charters. They’re not going to be caught on the wrong side of the gap, he insisted. “In my household, they’re definitely going to beat the odds because there’s no alternative.”

No silver bullets

The achievement gap has been in the news since the 1980s, but didn’t leap into public consciousness until the 2002 No Child Left Behind law forced schools to separate test scores for different racial groups.

In addition to poverty, parents, educators and reform advocates have blamed the problem on racism, lack of diversity in the teaching ranks, union rules that place the most inexperienced teachers in the most troubled schools, and poor parenting.

This year alone, the Minneapolis School District is taking numerous steps to address the gap. It’s adding classes for lagging students after school, on Saturdays, over summer, and even during spring break. It is working on a curriculum that better matches the state tests. It is participating in the Northside Achievement Zone, a targeted effort to stabilize families and support children from cradle to college.

The district also has begun the controversial task of evaluating teachers. And it plans to go back to the source — interviewing families to learn more about student attitudes and motivation.

Though scores of programs have been launched here and elsewhere, few districts nationally have found surefire methods. One group of experts convened by Harvard concluded that “while individual schools have successfully produced superior results … best practice reform rarely if ever delivers examples of transforming a mediocre district into a high performing one.”

Homing in

As Minneapolis bears down on its achievement gap, Eric Moore, the district’s research director, is the point person.

His slicing of data has helped the district home in on two groups of students — those who meet some state standards and are making progress, and students who previously met standards but whose progress is slackening.

In a pilot project at 13 schools, the district is trying to get both groups to meet math and reading standards.

The 13 schools aren’t the worst performers, but they have students close to proficiency and teaching staffs that have shown success in this area. And they are schools with larger concentrations of student of color.

There are some encouraging signs.

The district has cut its reading gap with the state in the past three years. It has identified teachers who can squeeze two years’ worth of growth in reading into one school year.

As she greeted parents at last month’s school fair, Superintendent Bernadeia Johnson urged them to ask tough questions: “Today is the first interaction that some of the parents will have with their child’s school. Take advantage of that and say, ‘I know that Minneapolis public schools has a gap. How will you ensure that my child is successful?’ Ask us the tough questions and say, ‘I want to be part of the solution and I want to be able to hold you accountable.’ ”

She can expect to get that attention from Phillips.

“My son is the next Barack Obama. He’s smart,” she said. “If I have stay up late every night and work on my son’s homework, I’ll do that. If I have to call the teachers, I’ll do that. If I have to go to school every day with my son, I’ll do that. I’m a dedicated parent.”