Reducing the achievement gap is happening ... elsewhere

Opinion: Columns

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By Jack Flynn

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In 1947 when I graduated from Hawthorne Elementary (now Julian Middle School), OPRF was rated one of the top 10 high schools in the United States. Twenty-three years ago I started to volunteer at OPRF because Wednesday Journal wrote such a critical article about the high school and the achievement gap.

After about three years, I saw the complete disconnect between District 97 and the high school. I was working with a very polite black student who also had a job. He was on a standard track taking Western European History. He had always received B's and C's in grammar school, but he was reading at a fifth-grade level. He was a "dead duck" and his mother was very upset. This was when they tried a "school within a school" to give extra help to those who were falling behind. It was extra help but during the same school day.

It was just about this time that Michael Feinberg, a graduate of OPRF, and his friend Jim Levine started their first KIPP charter school. There are now over 200 KIPP schools. They do a fabulous job with kids in the inner city who are without hope unless they get a good education. Part of the program is a longer school day so that these children can catch up to grade level. 

There are many great books available on the problem, but a key fact is that a child with two parents who have college educations has over 40 million verbal interactions in his/her first five years. A child of a single mother without a high school education has less than 6 million verbal interactions in the first five years. The vocabulary difference is huge. If KIPP can work with children where the majority of its population could fall into this category and yet get them on track, perhaps Michael Feinberg might come to OPRF to consult?

Besides volunteering at Irving for the last 20 years, I have been involved with a Christian Brother middle school in the Back of the Yards area. They only take sixth-graders who are doing poorly in school. They have a longer school day and school year. It amounts to over 60 more days of school compared to the standard public school. They have two hours of reading a day and 1½ hours of math. From this very poor neighborhood, over 90% graduate from select high schools and over 60% go on to four-year colleges. It can happen, but it takes extra time. It works in three years. Perhaps that time should take place at the elementary level?

I realize that progressive Oak Park will probably doubt the validity of this information, but a strict dress code reduces discipline problems by up to 60%. Considering the security costs at the high school, a dress code might offer some nice savings in the future.

One last thought: the only school district in the country to greatly reduce the achievement gap up to 2012 was in Montgomery County, Maryland. They have a K-12 school district and had the same superintendent for over 10 years. There is an idea that might save millions.

Jack Flynn is a resident of River Forest.

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