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Closing the gap: one school's approach
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Kindergarten students Lorenzo Reese and Michael Anderson work on an assignment. (MPR Photo/Tim Pugmire)
When educators talk about "the achievement gap" they're referring to the wide disparities in performance among racial groups of students. African American and Hispanic students consistently score below their white peers on standardized tests. Students from low-income families face a similar divide. That puts schools in high-poverty areas, with many students of color, at a distinct disadvantage. Many are struggling. But others appear to be defying the odds, making huge academic gains. Dayton's Bluff Elementary was one of St. Paul's lowest performing schools just a few years ago. Now, it's one of the best.

St. Paul, Minn. — The Dayton's Bluff neighborhood is located just east of downtown St. Paul, on a high ridge overlooking the Mississippi River. The streets are lined mostly with single family houses, some recently renovated, many in disrepair. The drone of freeway traffic fills the air. Income levels here are low, the crime rate is high and families move in and out at a transient pace. And then there are the kids.

"Half of them don't have proper clothing," said Zolena Winne. "They don't have beds. They don't have tables. A lot of them get evicted. The mothers are alcohols or drug addicts or drunks. And it makes a big difference to these kids because they're suffering."

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Image Von Sheppard

Winne lives in the neighborhood and works there too. She's an educational assistant at Dayton's Bluff Achievement Plus Elementary School. Winne says conditions at the school used to make her cry. Four years ago, test scores and morale hit rock bottom. It was one of the worst performing schools in the state. Students and teachers were frequently absent.

St. Paul School District Superintendent Pat Harvey took drastic action at Dayton's Bluff in 2001.

"It was at a point that the only way to make it better was to start all over again," Harvey said. "When things get so bad that the staff doesn't believe it can get better, then it's time for something different."

Harvey cleaned house; the technical term is "reconstitution." Teachers had to reapply for their jobs. The district rehired about a quarter of the staff, those who showed the strongest commitment to helping needy kids. The rest went to other schools. Harvey also brought in a new principal to shake things up. Strong leaders are often the key ingredient in turning around failing schools. She hired Von Sheppard, a former college football player and coach. His education experience was limited, but Harvey saw a lot of potential.

Von Sheppard stands near the school entrance every morning as students arrive. He's a large, imposing African American man with the thick neck, broad shoulders and massive arms that come from years in a football weight room. He starred at St. Paul Central High School and the University of Nebraska. Sheppard shows his soft side as he greets each student.

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Image Lynn Hisdahl

Sheppard is now in his fourth year at Dayton's Bluff. The school serves about 350 children in kindergarten through sixth grade. Nine out of 10 students live in poverty. His approach is to love them, then push them.

"These kids live in a tough neighborhood," Sheppard said. "They need to come to an environment that is conducive for learning, an environment to where they're cared about, an environment to where they're believed in and where the expectations are high."

Sheppard's formula is working. Test scores have climbed significantly each year he's been in charge. The school has avoided the state's list of underperformers, because every subgroup of students, including African American, Hispanic and Asian, is doing well.

At the same time, discipline problems have declined. When he started at the school, Sheppard would often have to carry unruly kids from their classrooms.

"Some of them would be kicking and screaming," Sheppard said. "But what I found, particularly with some of the black males, is they would just melt in my arms. Some of them just needed to be held."

You've got to care about the kids and believe in them before they're going to allow you to teach them.
- Von Sheppard

Sheppard used a system called the Responsive Classroom to bring order to the school. It's a strategy aimed at improving both the social and academic climate.

Fourth grade students play a name game as part of the daily ritual known as "morning meeting." In every classroom, students greet each other and share personal experiences, like what they've watched on TV or problems at home. They also play a game. Afterwards, it's time to start learning. Teacher Brandon Phillips says it's a good way to start the school day.

"It's easy to see a kid who had a bad morning, and then it's easy for a teacher to recognize it," Phillips said. Because it's hard for kids to just come in and just jump right in to working. The morning meeting is kind of fun. You've got a game in there. You get to share. You have like 50 or so greetings that we do, different kinds of greetings. I just think it's very valuable. It gets them all in a good mood. If you look at them now, there just warmed up, there ready to go."

They're also less likely to get in trouble. The cases of teachers sending students to the principals office are down 80 percent. Behavior problems still crop up, but they're often dealt with quickly and efficiently inside classrooms.

Sixth-grade students sit at their desks talking out a disagreement that boiled over earlier on the playground. Words were exchanged and feelings were hurt. The offending student explains her actions, then offers an apology.

Teacher Lynn Hisdahl says she uses blowups like these to make a point.

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Image Brandon Phillips

"If there was a behavior that I feel is worth discussing, because it's behavior that a of the kids have and it's a behavior that disrupts teaching and learning, yeah, then I'll stop everything," Hisdahl said. "And we'll deal with it, with the idea if we deal with it now we can keep it from happening over and over again and wasting more time."

The school-wide crackdown on discipline at Dayton's Bluff was just the start. And it cleared the way for even bigger academic changes.

Von Sheppard meets regularly with key members of his teaching staff to talk strategy. The reconstitution ridded him of one of the school's big problems: unmotivated, uncaring teachers. The staff turnover allowed Sheppard to surround himself with young, enthusiastic teachers, who share his tough-love approach. He also hung on to some dedicated veterans.

Marilyn Wojtasiak is one of the teachers who was rehired. She's has been at Dayton's Bluff for 12 years. Her current job is to coach fellow teachers on how best to reach students.

"Before, it was a school where teachers would come and they'd go into their room and close the door and try to teach," Wojtasiak said. "Now, it is definitely a big collaboration effort, where teachers are coming either to us or their colleagues saying help in this or this isn't working, can we have a discussion of how to have the students achieve?"

Teachers now have time to talk and plan with their colleagues. They also have extra time to get formal training to improve their teaching skills. As part of the reorganization, district officials negotiated a longer school year for the staff. Teachers get paid for an additional 10 days for professional development.

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Image Paul Wahmanholm and Marilyn Wojtasiak

Wojtasiak says the switch to a new curriculum, called America's Choice School Design, has made a big difference in student achievement. It's a framework for teaching that's helped boost performance in struggling urban schools throughout the country. Wojtasiak says the curriculum sets high standards and pushes everyone to meet them. Everybody is on the same page. Excuses are not tolerated.

"Every child, every parent, every teacher, they have a goal at the end of the year," Wojtasiak said. "So every child knows, for example, what is expected of them to achieve by the end of the year. For example, where are they supposed to be in the area of reading? What level book are they supposed to be reading at the end of the year? And it's the teacher's goal and our goal as coaches to help the children reach those goals."

Small class sizes also help. There are no more than 20 students in any classroom. That's a big advantage over most schools, where the average is closer to 30. It's also a huge benefit for students who often need more personalized instruction. But to pay for the teachers, Dayton's Bluff had to save money elsewhere. There are fewer computers than in most elementary schools, no teaching assistants and no librarian.

Principal Von Sheppard says caring teachers are the most important resource for helping children succeed.

"You've got to care about the kids and believe in them before they're going to allow you to teach them," Sheppard said. "You know it's just like coaching. Once that athlete knows that that coach has some interest and knows that he or she may play, they'll do whatever it takes in order to get some playing time. It's about hard work. It's about being prepared and it's about putting that carrot out for that student or for that athlete to help them reach their full potential."

Sheppard and his staff don't do it alone. The school gets a lot of outside help. Officials with the school district, city, county and the Amherst H. Wilder Foundation teamed up a few years ago to provide a variety of services to needy families inside three St. Paul schools. That's where the Achievement Plus designation comes from. The program provides services ranging from after-school learning opportunities to medical and dental care. Parents who are struggling to provide for their family often don't have the time to get involved in their kids education. Some don't care. At Dayton's Bluff, there's a family center aimed at bridging the parental involvement gap.

Robin Francis, the center's director, says Achievement Plus activities get parents into the school.

"We try and make this a welcoming center for the parents," Francis said. "We have coffee in the morning. We have snacks in the morning. We greet the parents in the morning. We try to make this the place where parents are going to feel good about it. You know, maybe they didn't have the best experience in school, but let's change that for their child."

A disadvantaged child enters school already behind. Researchers say that achievement gap is more easily closed when the student is young. Kindergarten students at Dayton's Bluff are placed in one of three groups based on their learning ability. The expectations are high. Students learn the alphabet and letter sounds, then they start reading and writing. They're eager to show off their work. Lorenzo Reese read from the story he wrote about a class field trip to the Minnesota Zoo.

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Image Lorenzo Reese

"We went on the school bus to the zoo," Reese said. "I saw red signs, stop signs, and whales and girls."

Teacher Patty Jilk is one reason Lorenzo and his classmates are reading so well.

"When these kindergartners came to school they did not know any letters or any sounds," Jilk said. "Now they know all their letters, all their sounds and they can read about -- you won't believe it -- 50 sight words."

Jilk has been teaching more than 30 years. She's seen big changes in the approach to kindergarten.

"When I started teaching, it was heresy to teach kids the alphabet in kindergarten," Jilk said. "Kindergarten was solely for play. But if you see how good these children feel about what they can accomplish and the head start they're getting, it is worth it."

Jilk says she's amazed by her students. She thinks Dayton's Bluff should be a model for other schools that need a boost. State education officials agree.

"They have seen some really positive changes to that school," said Jessie Montaño, director of No Child Left Behind programs at the Minnesota Department of Education.

Montaño studies closely the schools that are not making adequate yearly progress. She also looks at the schools that have worked their way off that dreaded state list. Montaño says Dayton's Bluff made a combination of important improvements in curriculum, environment and leadership. She says there are clearly lessons there for other schools. But Montaño cautions that each school's circumstances are unique, and there are no quick fixes.

"School improvement, systemic improvement, it's not about finding the silver bullet out there," Montaño said. "You aren't going to go out and find this magic program that you can spend hundreds and thousands of dollars on, and say if I can buy this program it's going to solve all my problems. Because there isn't such a program."

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Image Kayla Steward

Urban educators talk a lot about student mobility. That's a fancy term to describe the high turnover in their classrooms during the school year. Poor kids move a lot. Their parents find new jobs. They get evicted. They move in with relatives. A lot of things can happen. Researchers say students who make frequent moves are at greater risk of falling behind or getting into trouble. At Dayton's Bluff, nearly half of the kids who start the school year in the fall are gone by spring. Few students want to leave. Some of them love the school.

"If I wanted to grade Dayton's Bluff, I'd give them an A plus, plus, plus, plus, plus, plus, plus, plus, plus, plus, plus, plus, plus, plus, plus," said Kayla Steward, age 10.

Steward is a bright, energetic student, who started attending Dayton's Bluff in kindergarten. She lives with her mother and two brothers, Devonta and Seven in a small house on St. Paul's east side. Last year, she was in Mr. Phillips' fourth grade class. It was a good year for Kayla, who proudly boasts that she's now reading at a seventh grade level. Her test scores also are also climbing. Kayla is an African American student who's bridged the achievement gap.

Sitting on the floor of her small bedroom, she shows off the some of her recent writing projects.

"I think Mr. Phillips put a big impact in my life about writing because that's what I'm mostly good at," Kayla said. "I mean I write a lot of poems and stuff. I'm just really good at that type of stuff."

Kayla's writing is mostly autobiographical. Like most aspiring writers, she writes what she knows. She writes about working hard in school, making friends and overcoming life's obstacles. One poem is about her uncle Cody, who was killed by gunfire when Kayla was seven years old.

"The name of this poem is called How Can You Forget Cody?," Kayla said.

It was just like a day
The phone rang
We didn't know who it was, but we looked at our dad
He had a tear in his eye. My dad said Cody is dead. I can't cry, I said
No big point
We got in the car and went to the hospital
I seen everybody crying
I forgot what dying meant
I wanted to cry too
I held it in. Die, die, die
I think people forgot about Cody
He was shot seven times by two people
My good guy now is upstairs.

Kayla's family moved outside of the Dayton's Bluff attendance area two years ago. Her mother, Jamie Steward, says she didn't feel safe in their old neighborhood, but she still liked the school. Steward chose to drive her daughter to and from school everyday.

"I just didn't want them in the neighborhood," Steward said. "If they're doing bad stuff, you don want your kids to be in that, to jeopardize anything. I didn't want to jeopardize my family. Family is number one. If you've got to go, you've got to go."

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Image Pat Harvey

Circumstances finally caught up to the Steward family. Jamie has been out of work for several months and can no longer afford the extra driving. She also can't pick up Kayla at 3:00 in the afternoon when she's trying to find a job. Kayla is riding the bus this year to a different St. Paul elementary school. It's been a big adjustment. Still, she remembers the lessons learned at Dayton's Bluff, and her goals remain high.

"I want to go to Harvard," Kayla said. "That's why I want to get good grades. So, then when I get to Harvard, the stuff that they'll be teaching me I'll already know it. Then I'll graduate with success and become a teacher."

Students and staff gathered in the gymnasium at Dayton's Bluff last spring during the final days of the school year. It was a time to say goodbye to the teachers who wouldn't be back next year. It was also time to celebrate another year of improvement. Results of the state third- and fifth-grade tests showed more gains in math. Third-grade reading scores also climbed, but fifth-grade reading scores fell.

The results were better on the Stanford Achievement Test, a nationwide exam. In every grade, at least two thirds of all students were at or above average in reading and math. There's a lot to be proud of.

Since the school was reconstituted three years ago, student demographics at Dayton's Bluff have changed little. It's the same families and the same challenges. The difference now is the children are succeeding in the classroom. Still, successful students like Kayla Steward will come and go. Von Sheppard knows that's one factor he'll never control.

"It's tough," Sheppard said. "We've invested a lot of time in these kids. But as soon as one leaves, one will come in."

And when those new students arrive at Dayton's Bluff, the first lessons for them are clear: do your best work, you will learn, there are no excuses.

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