In order to keep students from getting trapped in the achievement gap, District 97’s new superintendent and a member of the school board think the best place to start helping kids is at the primary level.

Supt. Albert Roberts says he will appoint a task force of parents, faculty and administrators to examine how academically struggling kids are doing as early as kindergarten. Michelle Harton, a member of the board of education, urged the district to look more closely at students’ educational experiences starting in kindergarten.

The board last month heard a report from teachers and administrators about the full-day kindergarten program and how students are performing. That, in part, prompted Harton’s request to zero in on those students who fall within “AYP subgroups.” As outlined by the federal No Child Left Behind law, a rising percentage of students each year must meet or exceed standards on state standardized tests in order to make “adequate yearly progress” or AYP. While white students in Dist. 97 have generally met standards since the law went into effect in 2002, blacks, low-income and special ed students’ scores have varied, meeting the target some years and missing it the next.

During a discussion at the board’s Dec. 14 regular meeting, Harton stressed the need to increase focus on the early grades.

“Dist. 97 is wonderful at collecting and processing data, yet at this time I think we need to dig deeper with questions regarding academic concepts and skills,” she said, reading from a prepared statement. “I applaud the efforts of the kindergarten teachers and recognize that their plates are full. However, I challenge the district to take on the task of learning new techniques and procedures for intervening at this early stage with students and with their parents.”

She spoke about working more closely with the Collaboration for Early Childhood Care and Education in this area — a group whose focus is on children up to age 5. Harton also recalled a discussion she had recently with a group of African-American mothers about their kids’ experiences in the early grades.

“Amongst this group there was concern about the need to understand the academic skills that students will need in second grade, and to begin that discussion as early as possible,” she said.

Roberts, in response, said he agrees with the concept of digging deeper and having a specific plan to help kids. “If you’re going to deal with an achievement gap wherever it is, the place to deal with that is at the primary grade level,” he said.

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