In the Anoka-Hennepin School District, teachers work together to make sure students have equal levels of reading time in class. Kids who need it receive extra reading help. And some principals spend time learning from successful schools outside their districts that have similar student demographics.
Those are among the strategies that landed five Anoka-Hennepin schools on a list of those that performed well above expectations on statewide tests.
The Star Tribune’s annual “beating the odds” news analysis of this year’s Minnesota Comprehensive Assessments (MCA) found that the Anoka-Hennepin schools were among 44 high-poverty, metro-area public schools that showed progress toward closing learning gaps. Statewide, the average math proficiency among schools that “beat the odds” was 62 percent, compared with a 39 percent average for all economically disadvantaged schools. In reading, it was 57 percent, while the average was 41 percent.
Schools that beat the odds demonstrate that stubborn achievement disparities between groups of students can be narrowed and even closed. They serve as models for other schools and districts. Although there have always been a few schools that do well with challenging student populations, replicating or expanding that success has been elusive.
Understandably, improving learning is not as simple as taking the practices of School A and imposing them upon School B. Challenges can be as varied as the student bodies: In one building, there may be higher numbers of English language learners or homeless kids or more students exposed to trauma or violence outside of school.
That’s why other successful schools on the list report that teachers and other staffers work hard to get to know their students and tailor instruction methods and materials to their specific communities.
Still, there are some approaches that “beating the odds” schools often share. During a recent interview with an editorial writer, Minnesota Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius said that successful schools across the state often feel like families because students and staff know each other well. The programs have strong leaders who bring staff together around common goals. And educators constantly evaluate how kids are doing and quickly shift how they teach individual students: They don’t wait until the end of a grading period or for parent/teacher conferences to address students who have fallen behind.
To share those educational best practices, Cassellius added that her department’s Regional Centers of Excellence offer direct support to schools to help them improve.
The state’s second- and third-largest districts, St. Paul and Minneapolis, have 83 of the metro area’s 109 schools that fell short of test proficiency expectations. Between the two cities, only one school from each made the “beating the odds” list. That needs to change.
Minnesota needs well-educated workers and cannot afford to have so many of its students do so poorly academically. Districts statewide should take more lessons from schools that are getting it right, focus resources on strategies that work for kids and drop those that do not.