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School board elections are around the corner and that means there's a lot of talk about the $115 million kitty the high school board has stashed away. That's an important issue.
But I'd like to talk about an equally important issue: closing the achievement gap. The current incremental approach at the middle and high schools has failed. Amending disciplinary procedures and introducing new reading software are small steps. We need something bold.
Here is one idea:
What if we invite sixth grade students at the middle schools and freshmen at the high school who are 1-2 years behind grade level to voluntarily participate in a new "section" at their schools? Call it the "College Bound" section. The goal is to get middle-schoolers up to grade level by the time they enter high school and freshmen up to grade level in time for college.
For a freshman who enters two years behind grade level, we need a year and a half of achievement gain each year for four years. That's a big honkin' goal. How do we do it?
First, more time on task. College Bound students would attend a summer bridge program before entering which focuses on remedial math and English issues. Once school starts, they would double-dose math and English. They would have after-school tutoring, staffed by volunteer education majors from local universities. They would attend a fun summer enrichment program at Dominican or Concordia University. Each student would meet monthly with a volunteer mentor from the local community. Students might have a longer school day and school year.
Second, quality instruction. We would invite the best and most engaging teachers in the district to teach in the College Bound section. We would pay them an extra stipend to be available by phone during the evenings to assist with homework. We would hire an assistant principal dedicated to being a hands-on "master teacher" and peer coach to the teachers.
The instruction method would be different too. Teachers would use high-impact teaching strategies being used in charter schools that are closing the gap. Teachers would write the big idea from today's lesson on the board at the start of class. Students raise their hands. No calling out from the peanut gallery. Teachers don't talk over students. No sleeping. No students are allowed in the classroom after the bell. No student is allowed to check out from the discussion.
Third, state-of-the-art curriculum. The curriculum would track the national norms, but reading and writing would be taught across the curriculum. That means the science and history teachers would grade essays for style and grammar just as the English teacher does. The same interpretive reading skills from English (and needed on the ACT exam) would be deliberately taught in all classes. There would be less lecturing and more hands-on work. The curriculum would include deliberately teaching soft skills needed to succeed in college and life, such as teamwork, accuracy and persistence.
Fourth, measure the results. We would be deliberate about beginning- and end-of-course assessments to make sure the students are on track to catch up. The final goal in the high school section would be achieving an ACT score that will permit the student to go to and through college.
Finally, be deliberate about college prep. Teachers would fly their college pennants and talk up college. University visits would be mandatory, even for the middle-school students. A four-year college counseling curriculum would be in place in the high school to get students ready.
The College Bound section would not be a dead end. Students who move to grade level mid-program could return to the other sections. Remember, this program is voluntary.
And the cost? I predict that running College Bound will cost less than the current, ineffective supports attempting to close the gap.
Remember to ask about gap-closing issues at the upcoming candidate coffees and forums. If we don't ask, we don't get.
Jack Crowe is chief operating officer and general counsel for Cristo Rey Network.