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Gazette Premium Content Losing ground: Harrison District 2 wants dropouts to return

CAROL MCGRAW Updated: January 18, 2013 at 12:00 am

In February, Harrison School District 2 officials will go door to door to try to persuade dropouts to return to school.

The Come Back to HSD2 walk will offer up to 100 youths a chance to catch on credits for graduation, build a house from the ground up, and get jobs in the construction industry.

The effort, initiated by D-2’s new superintendent, Andre Spencer, is just one of the many ways that local districts are addressing the academic achievement gap that minorities face.

Lower-income students, often minorities, score significantly worse on state assessment tests than their white peers.

D-2 received a $250,000 grant to launch the Come Back project, a collaboration with Youth Transformation Center, E-cademy Learning Center, and Career Building Academy.

Spencer said the program dovetails with the district’s belief that schools in partnership with the community can provide support and hope for struggling students.

“If no one reaches out to them, they will fall further through the cracks,” he said.

In D-2, more than two-thirds of the students are minorities. Of those, 42.7 are Hispanic, 13 percent black and 1.4 percent are of two or more races. More than 70 percent of district students are from low-income families.

Often, poor students drop out because they have to work to help their family or because they become discouraged. The district wants to improve achievement and graduation rates, which are 74.1 percent among the 10,775 students.

A 2007 study published by Colorado Children’s Campaign found that the achievement gap in Colorado is larger than in most other states, with minorities about two grade levels behind white students. The study gave this dire warning: “Even under the best of circumstances, progress is slow. Several more generations of Colorado students will leave school with substandard skills before we solve the problem.”

The Colorado Department of Education reported that some of the state’s poorest districts made strong gains on the 2012 assessment tests. But scores of Hispanic, black and poor students scored about 27 percent below white students — what is know as the achievement gap.

Educators fear that minorities will fall even further behind as the state focuses on so-called 21st century learning skills. The jobs of the future demand critical thinking, career readiness, collaboration and technology know how. Without those tools, undereducated minorities will plunge even further behind, experts say.

D-2 and Colorado Springs School District 11, two districts with large minority populations, have been paying particular attention to the achievement gap.

D-2 calls itself a “no excuses” district, with a mindset that all children can learn and succeed.

Spencer, the D-2 superintendent, said that there has been a misconception that the best teachers should be placed with the best students.

“It is those that are struggling that should get the better teachers,” he said.

Some schools keep lower performing students out of Advanced Placement classes, often a path to college. But D-2 is working to give them more access. “They may be higher achievers than you think,” he noted.

The once chronically underperforming district has won accolades for its many- pronged approach to narrowing the achievement gap.

In the past several years, the district fired underperforming teachers and set in place a pay-for-performance plan that compensates teachers based on how well students score on standardized tests and other academic measures. The plan is much tougher than a state-mandated evaluation plan that will begin statewide next school year.

In the past five years, D-2 got off state academic probation and raised state assessment scores to near or at state average in most categories.

The district also put an end to social promotion, particularly holding back third graders and fifth graders until they can read at grade level. The district also has a High School Preparatory Academy to give 8th graders a repeat year to get ready for high school, particularly in reading skills.

There’s also a program to get more parents involved, an important component for student success, Spencer noted. And the district has a partnership with Peak Vista for a school-based health clinic for students and families.

District 11 has also been aggressively addressing education equality.

“Quality education is the ticket out of poverty,” says Jeanice Swift, assistant superintendent.

The district’s black and Hispanic enrollment has steadily grown since 2007 even as district enrollment has declined. About 36 percent of the 29,000 students are minorities, 29 percent of them Hispanic.

Among the D11 programs to address the gap are:

• Help before or during school.

• Enrichment experiences. Swift noted that while white students from higher-income families might go to the museum with their parents, some impoverished students might never have been out of their neighborhoods. So the district provides projects such as extra hands-on science to help them catch up.

• Emphasis on attitudes and habits that lead to academic success. The district offers rigorous high school curriculum, with courses that can be taken for college credit.

• A new interactive computer math tool that is not language based. It has helped students across the board, particularly those impacted by poverty and those for whom English is a second language.

• A focus on helping students develop resiliency and grit. Some students, officials said, have not had life mentors who encouraged or explained that failure can ultimately lead to successes.

Contact Carol McGraw: 636-0371 Twitter @mcgrawatgazette Facebook Carol McGraw

Students begin writing practice college application essays in sixth grade.

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