A boost for students "on the cusp"

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February 25, 2014 // UPDATED 3:02 pm - March 2, 2014
By: Dylan Thomas
Jefferson Community School math specialist Robyn Minahan goes over a division lesson with a group of fifth graders.
Dylan Thomas
Dylan Thomas
In the district's midyear push for achievement, partially proficient students get extra attention

THE WEDGE — It was a basic division problem: Split a dozen cookies between two, four, six and 12 plates.

For the most part, the calculations came easily to the five Jefferson Community School fifth graders, who sketched the cookies in their workbooks and added little dots for chocolate chips. Math specialist Robyn Minahan, who was leading the lesson, later described them as students “right on the cusp” of proficiency, and in the district’s midyear push to accelerate academic progress those students are now getting some extra attention.

There were a few stumbles when Minahan asked them to write the problems out or read them aloud, and she spent part of their half-hour together reviewing math vocabulary.

“The word I want you to know the most is ‘quotient,’” she said. “Do you remember what that means?”

One eager boy got it: the answer to a division problem.

Minneapolis Public Schools’ ongoing search for answers to the achievement gap led to a test of several academic interventions beginning in late January. These “short-term strategies,” as the district is calling them, could lead to long-term changes if they prove successful.

At 13 elementary schools, including Jefferson, schedules are being shifted so teachers like Minahan can test new interventions with students. While those interventions often target the students furthest behind, a finer-grained examination of student data has helped the district identify those projected to fall just short of proficiency in math and reading on this spring’s Minnesota Comprehensive Assessments, or MCAs, tests used by the state to measure progress toward academic standards.

To give students even more instructional time, the district plans to test a five-day Spring Break Academy at a dozen or more school sites. Saturday classes are offered at several elementary schools and even some of the high schools, where the focus is on keeping student on-track for graduation. 

Learning lab

Suzanne Griffin-Ziebart, the district’s chief academic officer, said schools across the city are tweaking the way they deliver core instruction to students, but 13 schools “that were positioned well to really make a shift mid-year” will serve as a “learning lab” for the rest of the district. They’re testing the new intervention and teaching strategies that could become more widespread next school year.

“Minneapolis — as someone coming in with new relatively new eyes — has had some excellent initiatives in place,” said Griffin-Ziebart, who was hired by Superintendent Bernadeia Johnson just before the start of this school year. “They’ve had some really good thinking about what they can do to benefit students.

“What we haven’t always done is then follow up when we put those plans into place to determine what was the quality of implementation. What did a particular site do that made something very successful? What was it that made something maybe not as successful as we thought?”

Determining what works and what doesn’t is largely up to the district’s Research, Evaluation and Assessment Department, which is scheduled to deliver a preliminary report on the short-term strategies this spring and then final report in June, at the end of the school year.

In Minneapolis, as is the case elsewhere, disparities in student outcomes are shaped by both race and family income. The district reports its short-term strategies target half of its students of color and one-third of those living in poverty

That’s in part due to the demographics of the schools getting the most intense supports. Jefferson’s 720 pre-k–8 students are about 38 percent African-American and 34 percent Hispanic. Eighty-nine percent of Jefferson students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch and 55 percent are English-language learners.

Last spring, Jefferson students performed far below both state and district averages on the MCAs: just 25 percent scored proficient in math and 22 percent were proficient in reading.

“Almost there”

Jefferson Principal Bridget Hall said the new strategies being tested at her school would join a slate of interventions already in place in classrooms.

Tutors from AmeriCorps’ Math Corps and Reading Corps programs work daily with students, and Jefferson is participating in a McKnight Foundation-funded pre-K–3 literacy initiative. All students already get ST Math, a math intervention delivered via iPad.

“The model has been the groups that need the most support are the ones that you’re really going to focus on,” Hall said.

The district’s short-term strategies are augmenting that approach, targeting a few dozen

third- and fifth-graders on the cusp of subject-area proficiency with extra supports they may otherwise not have gotten. Hall said that was “exciting.”

“It’s like they have the basics, but they just need to refine a little more and build up on that, so this is that opportunity, that extra little bump,” she said.

Anne Luce, the school’s newly hired reading interventionist and a former charter school director, works with about 35 students who are already good readers, but could use an extra boost. Like Minahan, the math specialist, Luce began the new semester by administering series of tests to determine which students would really benefit from the intervention.

“We’re working with the kids who are almost there,” Luce said. “… I think that there are a lot of students who, if they just get the help they need, can really start excelling.”