When parent Kathryn Lusack dropped by an elementary school in the Burnsville-Eagan-Savage district this summer, she noticed the demographics of the summer school kids right away: about 90 percent were students of color and 80 percent were boys.

“It really got to bothering me. We don’t make up those numbers for the school district, so why were there so many of our children there?” Lusack said. “It hurt me to see that.”

While her own son is doing well in school, the reality of the achievement gap hit home: as an African American parent, her child could easily be the one needing academic help.

She shared her concern with the principal at her son’s school, Vista View Elementary in Burnsville. The idea of forming a parent leadership team focused on closing the achievement gap was born.

Lusack wanted to “not only help the children that were failing, but also help families to help their children succeed,” she said.

Vista View Principal Brad Robb was on board, eager to “start hearing voices of parents we might not always hear from,” he said.

After an initial meeting with a team of eight diverse Vista View parents in November, Robb was thinking of starting slow. But the parents insisted, “We’ve got to get rolling on this,” he said.

Setting high expectations

Since then, the group has met twice and held a December potluck, attended by 60 people, including teachers and a wide range of parents. The team made personal phone calls to parents to invite them, including calls in Spanish and Somali if that was the parents’ native language.

“I really think [the phone calls by parents] is what made the difference,” said Jennifer Bordonaro, a Vista View assessment coach on the leadership team.

The theme of the first event was how to set high expectations for students. There were headsets so nonnative English speakers could ask questions and have them translated immediately.

Bordonaro said the group and event were successful, in part, because the parents are in charge.

“I think it is the simplicity of [the team] that really struck me,” Bordonaro said. “The only way we’re going to find out what’s not working is by asking and talking to the parents.”

Another idea that has emerged is a need for open communication between parents and teachers, school and home. Notices must be sent out in languages other than English, Lusack said.

And the district should look to hire more male and minority staff members. “Our children need to see more people who are different,” she said.

Districtwide focus

At Vista View, the achievement gap between the standardized test scores of white students and students of color is consistent with statewide trends, Robb said. There is a 24-point gap between white students and students of color in math scores, and a 32-point gap in reading.

Like districts across the state and country, Burnsville-Eagan-Savage is taking steps to close the gap, which Superintendent Joe Gothard called a “moral imperative.”

Those steps have included creating a new director of equity position and hiring social workers at elementary schools to address students’ emotional and social health, Gothard said. Another aim has been “making sure we can fully understand our student data,” he said, since “there are stories within a story” in statistics related to different groups’ achievement.

Gothard noted that in three years as principal, Robb has been “incredibly committed” to sharing data with parents and community outreach.

“I think what this says to me is that the parents have felt very empowered and there’s been a great deal of trust that’s been built,” Gothard said. “I feel very good about that.”

While there are plenty of parent groups at district schools, Gothard said he doesn’t know of any others that are focused on the achievement gap.

More than just talk

The committee wants to hold another community event in the coming weeks with a theme that has come up repeatedly — homework. Parents want their kids to have more homework, to understand how to help them with it and to know what kinds of online resources are available, Lusack said.

Lusack hopes the parents’ efforts will eventually result in all sorts of community involvement, including bringing more volunteers to school to assist kids academically.

Robb said working with the team has taught him that he can’t make assumptions about what parents think or want without asking them first.

The group hopes to grow and build momentum, Bordonaro said. The long-term goal is to reduce the achievement gap, but she also wants to ensure that it results in more than just talking.

“We want parents to see that we’re not just listening, we’re taking action,” Bordonaro said.