Cupcakes and Closing the Gap: A Promising Local Panel Discussion

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After the flyers were posted, the last minute text messages sent, the towering 2-story display of cupcakes and tea assembled, and the bright green pamphlets artfully splayed across the centers of round tables, it all came together. My Students for Education Reform co-chapter leader Katie and I fumbled with our notes. My hands were sweating, and my veins pumped adrenaline. I felt that familiar chill that comes with standing at the starting line before a race. Only this time we were in a dining room. I was desperately clicking the on/off switch of a cordless microphone instead of waiting for the sound of the countdown to the starting gun.

We’d been planning for weeks. Unlike the UpliftEd rally advertised hastily in a string of three days, there was time to cover all of our bases. Despite the meticulous planning, advertising, and pages of emails, we still worried. Worst case scenario: A table full of impressive panelists, and no audience to inspire.

We didn’t have to wait long. The students came in groups of 2 and 3–steadily streaming in for twenty minutes. They bee-lined for the treats, made name tags and signed in, and then flipped casually through the pamphlets I’d agonized over–complete with volunteering opportunities and contact information. I picked apart all of the details I wouldn’t normally notice as an attendee at any event I didn’t plan.

Filled with nearly 40 audience members, a seated and smiling group of five panelists, and lit by the backdrop of a technologically sound PowerPoint presentation, the room was ready to go.

I’m getting ahead of myself. Before I get into the content of this panel discussion event, I should introduce the people who made it possible–the nonprofit organizations and progressive individuals who are defining “education reform” in Northfield, MN. After all, they are the reason we started Students for Education Reform St. Olaf.

When Katie and I brainstormed ideas for our first event with SFER St.Olaf, we were determined to showcase our mission of “local approach.” Convinced that a great first event could draw in members and raise awareness, we dreamed up a plan (with the help of an adviser in our college’s Center for Vocation and Career) that would introduce St. Olaf students to the promising work already occurring in Northfield to close the achievement gap. We hoped that the information and inspiration based format of a panel discussion would encourage students to volunteer and advocate for organizations desperate for support and hindered by red tape.

After a bit of research and many e-mails (and follow-up emails,) this is the amazing cast of panelists we came up with (the information found below was provided by the panelists*):

Carolyn Treadway, So How Are the Children (SHAC):

After working this summer with Carolyn as an intern for So How are the Children, Katie knew that Ms. Treadway’s voice would offer wonderful perspective in our conversation about the achievement gap in our Rice County school district.

SHAC’s Mission: Provide Faribault’s diverse youth population with opportunities to succeed and thrive. SHAC works to achieve this by:

  • Creating strong, effective programming for youth
  • Partnering with other organizations in the area
  • Strengthening relationships with the families  SHAC serves
  • Giving support to immigrant populations to help them succeed

Volunteers with SHAC work in after school ESL classes for adults, as mentors for Somali students, and as organizers of recreational activities for Somali Girls and Boys clubs.

Joel Leer, Principal of Northfield High School:

Joel Leer leads Northfield High,  a 9-12 public high school with approximately 1230 students. NHS offers a comprehensive high school experience with 12 disciplines and PSEO options. Students have access to 16 Advanced Placement courses as well as a number of support options that provide avenues for success for all students. Northfield High School owns a four year graduation rate over 90%, including a 100% graduation rate in 2012 among its Latino students. Northfield High School also offers over 30 co-curricular and extracurricular activities 9-12. Volunteers assist in after school tutoring and assistance at concerts and sporting events.

Beth Berry, Tackling Obstacles and Raising College Hopes (TORCH):

Recently featured in a complimentary article in the Minnesota Star Tribune, Ms. Berry is a lead coordinator for this nonprofit organization whose mission is to close Northfield’s Achievement Gap (a mission Berry admits will not be an easy or a quick feat.)

TORCH was created in 2005 in order to meet a need in the Latino community. Members of the school district, as well as community members, collaborated to address the issue of the achievement gap between Latino students and white students in the Northfield School District. Because of their success, TORCH’s programs are now available to all traditionally under-served students. Together TORCH offers:

  • Tutoring and mentoring
  • ACT prep
  • College Visits
  • PSEO Programming

The TORCH Mission: To improve the graduation and post-secondary  participation rates of Northfield’s minority student, low-income students, and youth who would be first generation college attendees.

Lisa Battaglia, Northfield High School Academy Program:

In order to understand the Northfield Academy program, we must first understand Northfield High School a bit further:

During the 2008-2009 school year:

  •   25% of 9th graders failed a class.
  •   27% of 9th graders were absent 10 or more days.
  •  30% of 9th graders had discipline referrals.
  •  20% of 9th graders’ reading scores are below grade level.

NATIONAL TRENDS

  • More students fail 9th grade than any other year (Wheelock & Miao, 2005).
  • Of every 3 students who enter high school, one will drop out (Border, 2006).
  • When high schools made special provisions to “receive” their 9th graders, significantly fewer students were retained in their freshmen year courses (Kerr, 2002).

Successful schools have learned that distinctive and extraordinary initiatives are necessary during the 9th grade year.

Working closely with Principal Joel Leer, Lisa Battaglia and the Northfield High School Academy Program work to create an environment that encourages involvement, development, and rigor to help students succeed at the high school and beyond. Students participate in English, Civics/American History, Physics/Chemistry, and Seminar. The curriculum within and outside of the Academy structure is the same. The main differences are smaller class size (no more than 25 students), focus on reading development, the use of academic and behavior pyramids of intervention, and the ability to use flexible scheduling as needed due to four periods a day in the structured Academy setting. Parent involvement is welcomed and encouraged. The Academy team meets weekly both as a team and with the assistant principal, social worker, and guidance counselors to help ensure our students’ success at Northfield High School.

Amy Johnson, College Ambitions Starting Today (CAST):

Finally, Amy Johnson, a representative of Americorps Vista and CAST, added her perspective from the work being carried out at Faribault High School.

The Faribault High School has recently seen a large increase in minority youth, with  30% of Faribault students identified as minorities. Along with having a very racially diverse population, over half of Faribault’s High School students receive free/reduced lunch.  An achievement gap has become apparent between these minority students and their peers, so in response, CAST was created.  By offering college access programming for minority students, CAST is working to create a college- bound culture for all in the High School. Volunteers help with ACT prep, homework help, and provide positive role modeling during homeroom periods.

Assembled in a row before a captive audience (many of whom are education students hoping to create change from within the system and told about this panel by their education professors,) the set of experienced and eloquent panelists prepared to dive in.

First, we shared with the group a few key slides from a presentation prepared by a St. Olaf Education Professor well-versed in the study of Minnesota achievement gaps:

Establishing that the highest chances for academic success (from Northfield to the rest of the United States) involve being white and having parents who make more than $160,000/year, the achievement gap was introduced. As these depressing charts and statistics were presented, each of the panelists nodded along. They knew they scope of these numbers. Unlike so many of us in the room, they’d seen them first hand. These weren’t just statistics. These numbers were the antagonists–looming threats to those kids in after school programs, after hours basketball games, and ACT prep courses. These numbers knock those students out of “the game” of education before they even reach the starting line.

After the sighs and slides, we turned to the panelists for their first question: “What do you perceive as the biggest factor(s) contributing to the achievement gap in Northfield and Faribault?”

Overwhelmingly, the responses were the same. Returning to the numbers, each panelist scanned the room and stated; “Poverty.” When a child comes to class with a grumbling stomach, a family can’t pay rent, and enriching summer programs and after school activities are out of the question, learning and success in school inevitably suffer. Each panelist stressed that schools and communities must work together to overcome the pitfalls and far-reaching consequences of poverty. Good schools are key when it comes to overcoming poverty, but they cannot solve the problem alone.

After linking the achievement gap to roots of poverty, the panelists answered our second question; telling us about the victories they’ve had and the practices they’ve identified when it comes to suturing the gaping gap between race, class, and test scores in Northfield’s schools.

Ms. Treadway told stories of SHAC’s success with summer programming–of the Somalian mothers brought together by “Mondays in the Park,” a community-wide effort to give children a space for supervised recreation and crafts while their Moms relax and bond over snacks with volunteers. She spoke of SHAC’s “Summer Kids Connection,” a free program for Faribault youth featuring fun and educational activities. Programs like these, she said, are an important step to leveling the playing field when students return to classrooms after a long three months of summer.

Johnson and Battaglia, representatives from CAST and the Northfield High School Academy, echoed Treadway’s response. CAST works to close the gap by offering after-hours mentoring and academic help. What happens outside of the classroom in this case is more important than what happens within it–pushing students toward success by helping them to put in overtime, feel supported, and eventually go on college visits that inspire agency.

Battaglia focused on the Northfield High School Academy’s flexible scheduling and the presence of high school students teaching in the classroom. With small class sizes and a team of well-trained teachers and mentors working alongside them, Academy students are equipped to learn from each other on a daily basis. The expectations are set high, and the kids rise to the challenge.

This is where Beth Berry jumps in. With passion and a sense of urgency, she tells her audience to remember that the gap is not yet closed. Not even close. These strategies are all wonderful, but they aren’t enough. She presents the achievement gap as a wound, and tells us; “we are only slowing the bleeding.” She emphasizes the importance of starting early–integrating pre-K education and involving entire communities. She is a woman who follows up. Joel Leer jumps in to tell us this. Beth Berry doesn’t give up. She tracks kids down until they hand in completed college applications. She visits their homes. She cares. This, Mr. Leer says, is what makes a huge difference for Northfield youth.

Here, Mr. Leer shares the stories of the students he’s worked with over the years. He embraces the metaphor of bringing a horse to water; “You can’t make a horse drink,” he states, “but these programs [TORCH, CAST, SHAC, and the Academy] are relentless.” These students will drink the water. At the very least, they will try.

Though we only asked two questions of the panelists, their discussion was so lively and extensive we’d already burned through most of our allotted hour. The Q&A session from the student audience went well past the hour, and nearly everyone stayed.

When asked about the presence of home visits in their programs, panelists highlighted anecdotes. One that stuck came from Ms. Berry–the story of a movement to engage Hispanic parents by having them read to their kids. Berry learned early on in her work that many parents in the Hispanic community worried about confusing their children if they tried to read to them in English–making mistakes in a nonnative language that could hinder the child’s ability to read English. Berry worked to distribute children’s books written in Spanish to the community–recognizing that children read to in Spanish by their parents would pick up a second language of English much more easily (not to mention the importance of parent-child connection.)

Confronted with a question about how the work of closing the achievement gap and these nonprofit organizations are funded, Mr. Leer shook his head and took a sip of water. He swallowed and spoke seriously about the employees who are selfless enough to work below minimum wage. He told us about the legal limits of advocating for government programs and  organizations with an undeniable political sway. “The issue of poverty is not partisan,” he said. And yet, we all found ourselves thinking that the inability to advocate for these programs makes it feel that way. Following Mr. Leer’s points, Katie and I jumped in with our SFER mission. We are college students. There is little red tape. We can advocate. In our first year as an organization, this is where we want to make an impact–helping to spread news of the good work already at play in our local communities. We want to extend the reach of these programs and build on their successes.

The last question from the audience was a loaded one, and the conversation it started was an entry point for many more to come. Posed by an African American track coach at St. Olaf, the question regarded hiring practices and race. “What are you doing to encourage a more diverse work force of teachers in Northfield?” he asked. In a follow up question, he proposed the use of incentives for minority teachers.

In response, Mr. Leer was handed the microphone. Again he told stories of his students. He remembered the 4th grade Hispanic male teacher at Greenvale Elementary (an incredible man I had the privilege of working with when I tutored his students in my freshman year,) and the instant connection he shared with his Spanish-speaking students. Mr. Leer recognized how important this kind of shared identity can be for students as they begin to overcome the achievement gap. Role modeling is important, and bringing a teacher into a classroom where the students can say “he/she is just like me!” is often a transformative experience. Leer acknowledged that “candidates of color” and “diversity” were much desired in the Northfield teaching community. Unfortunately, Northfield is often not the most attractive place to those candidates. In many ways, Leer stated, “we are handcuffed by our whiteness.” Beginning teacher salaries are often higher in metro areas, noted Carolyn Treadway, and the rural town of Northfield looks less attractive in this sense. Furthermore, teacher’s unions make it much more difficult to put candidates of color into the “small pile” in the application process. The solutions are not simple.

 Beth Berry jumped in with the final word–a statement she admitted was political (but we’re in election season after all aren’t we?!) She told us about the Hispanic college graduate who she saw grow leaps and bounds through TORCH’s services. Despite being overqualified, he took a low-paying job as a secretary in a high school for two years because he was determined to give back to his community. He became a role model–the only Hispanic faculty member in the entire school.

“I wish we could incentivize” was the underlying message of the panelists who replied. “Our hands are tied.”

The panel discussion closed in a tone of critical hope. We knew about the severity of the issue–about its complexity and stacked layers. We also knew that we wanted to do something about it. These organizations gave us tangible tools. Speaking with a student after the event who shared her own personal connection to the achievement gap and unique interpretation of the discussion, I couldn’t wait to get started.

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