Minneapolis School District leaders are trying a new strategy they hope will close the achievement gap between white students and students of color: doubling down on building students’ skills in kindergarten through second grade.

The only way to combat education disparities in later years, they say, is to tackle the problem early using data to pinpoint what students are struggling with and to come up with effective teaching methods that would boost academics for at-risk students.

About 40% of the achievement gap is seen before students enter kindergarten in the Minneapolis School District. By third grade, the gap rises to 60% — and remains at that level year after year.

“We have to really attack the early grade levels,” said Eric Moore, the district’s chief of accountability, innovation and research. “It’s our responsibility as a school district to address those gaps in learning. If we don’t, we can’t expect to see the gap change.”

Minneapolis school leaders stressed that the K-2 grade levels are the most important developmental years of children’s educational lives.

Superintendent Ed Graff has vowed to redouble the district’s efforts to narrow the significant gap between student groups, making strong academics front and center of his emerging strategic plan — a strategy he hopes will also remedy the district’s enrollment woes. In 2016, Graff rolled out a new reading curriculum in pre-K through fifth-grade classrooms across the district to boost reading skills and improve learning overall. Recently, with the help of city officials, the district launched an aggressive effort to help stabilize the home and school lives of its homeless elementary students.

“We need to adopt the appropriate materials, when we see that those materials are not necessarily meeting the needs of different levels of learners,” Graff said in an interview Wednesday. “We need to make sure that we support what those materials need to look like, whether they’re new materials or it’s training for teachers.”

Graff’s focus on literacy is starting to pay off. In the last academic year, the district saw noticeable gains in state reading scores, with 47% of students hitting state benchmarks — up from 43% in 2015-16 and 45% in 2017-18 school years. Minneapolis had the third-largest increase among all metro school districts, year over year. Only Richfield and Westonka school districts had bigger increases between the 2017-18 and 2018-19 school years.

Despite the progress, the gaps among student groups remain. About 24% of American Indian and 23% of black students in Minneapolis Public Schools are reading at grade level by third grade, compared with 76% of white students — with similar gaps in math. Graff and his team have introduced an academic plan that will also focus on boosting at-risk students’ reading and math proficiency before they leave second grade. Disparities in achievement by third grade, they say, contribute greatly to the gaps in later years and school completion.

To address those problems, they have set explicit goals. At least 80% of kindergartners must demonstrate readiness before advancing to first grade, where another benchmark awaits. School officials are tracking attendance to detect early warning signs that could threaten student progress. And teachers have been given guided early literacy instructions and materials and are getting continuous training on how to deliver them.

Meanwhile, a steering committee will convene about adopting a new math curriculum in kindergarten through second grade by next school year. In the 2018-19 school year, the district’s math scores were flat.

But studies show it’s a lot easier to teach kids how to read and write and do arithmetic if they first master how to pay attention, control their behavior and retain information. Helping students practice and acquire these basic skills to control their attention span sets them up for success, researchers say.

“There is a bit of a disconnect,” said researcher Philip Zelazo, a professor of child development at the University of Minnesota, who’s part of a team studying academic achievement by looking at how children’s brains develop. “And historically, that’s the problem is that people have tried to minimize the achievement gap by providing children of color, for example, with more earlier opportunities to learn basic reading and math skills,” he said. “And that doesn’t seem to work. So it’s really important to have assessment of executive function, direct behavioral assessments, measuring children’s skill.”

Pressure to perform

On a recent morning at Pillsbury Elementary School in northeast Minneapolis, bundled-up kindergartners transitioned from play to books with no fuss and no assist from teachers, quickly removing their winter gear and taking their position on a colorful mat. Their teacher, Courtney Cline, read aloud a picture book titled “Giraffes Can’t Dance” while also using hand signs to improve students’ memory, self-awareness and behavior.

“Look at the cover. Who do you think the character is in this story?” she asked, reminding students to use picture clues as she went around with the book.

Cline does not teach reading using a one-size-fits-all strategy. Her students have varying skills, and using pictures for now helps students read the words or at least retell the story. She must tweak her approach to meet the needs of all students because most of them don’t yet know how to read, she says.

Half the students in kindergarten at Pillsbury are not meeting state standards. And nearly one in eight students is homeless. There’s pressure to bring students up to speed before they are assessed for reading and math in December, as that measure will determine if they are on track for first grade. Achieving that goal means extended planning time between building administrators, classroom teachers, special­-ed teachers and instructors who work with students learning English. They meet regularly to review student data to see where they need to make adjustments and come up with strategies to boost readiness. By the end of second grade, all students are expected to go beyond just reading words to be able to read fluently and comprehend the concepts.

But for Cline, her goal is to blend academics with some fun to make sure her materials hold students’ interest.

“I want the kids first and foremost to love school,” she said. “It’s kindergarten; we like to think that they are playing a game but also learning at the same time.”