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The cost of Minnesota racial achievement gap
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St. Paul high school dropout Felicia Thomas, 23, has two children and wants to finish her degree so she can help her children with their school work. (MPR photo/Dan Olson)
Minnesota's racial achievement gap is wide and persistent. By junior high nearly half of the state's minority students are testing well below their white counterparts in reading, writing, and math. Poverty, experts say, is one of the most reliable indicators of who will fall into the achievement gap, and minorities are disproportionately represented among the state's poor. They and society pay a high cost for their not doing well in school.

St. Paul, Minn. — Many focus on the cost of the achievement gap in school -- the money spent on helping low performing kindergarten through 12th grade students catch up.

Less visible, but just as crippling, are the achievement gap's long-term costs, such as not finishing high school or leaving high school with poor skills.

The cost for high school drop out Felicia Thomas is no employer will hire her. "They want you to have a high school diploma, which I don't have so it's very hard for me to find a good job," she says.

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Image Recruiting dropouts to return to school

Thomas, 23, is a tall, African American woman wearing blue jeans and a plaid shirt. She dropped out of a St. Paul high school in l998 when she was an 11th grader because of the pressure of raising her two children.

She's at the St. Paul school district's registration center on University Avenue and wants to return to school get a diploma. Thomas saw a flyer inviting dropouts to talk about finding a way to complete their course work. "Now my son is in first grade and I feel that I need to better educate myself so I can help him through school, so that's what brought be back here. My son brought me here," she says.

Last year St. Paul school district officials convinced about 100 dropouts like Felicia Thomas to return. A district spokesman says the goal this year is 250.

The cost of the achievement gap can also be measured in a lifetime of diminished earning power. Christopher Olley is a St. Paul school district teacher recruiting dropouts and encouraging them to return to school. "If someone doesn't get a diploma," Olley says, "the medium income between (ages) 24 and 64 is about $1 million and if you get a high school diploma it's about $1.2 million, and if you get some junior college or college or some training after high school it's about $1.5 million. A half million dollars for simply finishing school and getting certified in something," Olley says.

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Image Discouraged about earning power

The diminished earning power caused by the achievement gap is the scenario playing out for Eugene Faizon. "Right now, at 47, I believe I should be making at least $47,000 a year," he says.

Faizon, married and father of nine children, works for a Minneapolis-based social service agency. He declines to give a number but says he's earning much less than $47,000.

Faizon has worked in human service jobs for years, and when he applies for better jobs, he says his education history comes back to haunt him. "When they get to the education part, (they say) 'We can hire you at a lower rate of pay or you don't qualify due to the fact there's no college credits or no college at all,'" he says.

Faizon has a diploma from a St. Paul high school where 30 years ago he was a track and football star. "I had scholarship offers and all that and it would have been to no good if I'd went because I wasn't prepared," he says.

Faizon finished high school, but by his own measure he was not doing 12th-grade-level work. He says the diploma he was given was, "like a get-out-of-jail-free card."

Faizon faces the long-term cost of the achievement gap. He and many other adults who didn't do well in school manage to stay afloat, the but their economic status is marginal. "Yeah, I'm not in jail, I'm not committing any crime, but as far as when you say doing well," Faizon says, "Can I send my daughter to college right now? No. Can I buy a new vehicle? No. Can I tell my kids I have a degree on the wall? No. Can I tell an employer that? No."

Eugene Faizon and high school dropout Felicia Thomas put a human face on the achievement gap.

Many, but by no means all, are people of color. What many of them have in common is they are poor. In fact, some of the children and adults who fall into the achievement come from middle- and even upper-class families.

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Image Helping adults catch up

However, Barry Shaffer and other experts say poverty is a reliable indicator of who will fall behind in school.

Shaffer directs Minnesota's adult basic education programs. "Folks that find themselves in poverty and low income situations," he says, "Are the most likely to have their children in this lower performing group that makes up the achievement gap problem."

The achievement gap problem becomes a cycle.

Shaffer says parents are the first and best teachers of their children. But if the parents didn't do well in school they are less able to help their children learn.

Shaffer says the way to break the achievement gap cycle is to convince adults who have trouble reading, writing and computing to get help. Shaffer's program enrolls adults and encourages them to bring along their young children. While the adults are in class the children are cared for in pre-school programs. "If we could reach them, and reach them quickly," he says, "We could make a huge dent in the achievement gap problem in our K-12 schools."

Eugene Faizon had lots of achievement in high school as a star athlete but not as a student. He regrets not having the skills he needed to go to college where he could have gotten an education that would given him more money and a better life. "Not having a degree right now causes a lot of shame," Faizon says, "Wondering did I just waste 47 years of my life. Right now, with what I'm doing for a job it's like do I want to continue doing this?"

Minnesota is not ignoring Eugene Faizon and others who have fallen into the achievement gap. Spending on the state's adult education system has tripled and the number of adults taking classes has quadrupled in the past decade. However, state officials say thousands more adults need help learning to read and write. Otherwise they face a lifetime of diminished earning power and low employability in a state economy that needs well educated workers.

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