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OUR OPINION: Schools’ goal should be academic achievement

Every year, some 1,700 students from around the country enter the Intel Science Talent Search, whose top award of $100,000 make it one of the most prestigious science fairs in the world.

Three hundred students from that group of 1,700 get named semifinalists, making the task difficult but not impossible.

But something stands out in the 2014 list of semifinalists:

Seven are from Minnesota, three are from Wisconsin and one is from South Dakota, but not one is from North Dakota.

Likewise, there no North Dakotans listed among the Intel Science Talent Search semifinalists for 2013, 2012 or 2011.

In 2010, Ben Sun’s name appears. Sun, a Red River High School student at the time, went on to become a finalist, one of the top 40 students who get scholarships and an all-expenses paid trip to Washington, among other benefits.

But Sun was only North Dakota’s fourth finalist since the competition began in 1942.

As Leslie Klevay writes in his letter on today’s page, the 20 candidates for seats on the Grand Forks School Board all agree that better communication is vital. But whoever wins in Tuesday’s election should strongly consider taking Klevay’s advice: Communicate, yes, but do so in pursuit of the goal of high academic achievement.

And by high academic achievement, we mean consciously striving to make the Grand Forks School District the top school district in the state

That’s the way to regain parents’ and taxpayers’ trust. That’s the way to win support for school-board and administration initiatives, and that’s the way to be able to approach policy decisions and citywide votes with confidence.

Herald editorials have mentioned the Intel Science Talent Search before. That’s because the contest is a marker: A school district that routinely produces students who are competitive at the Intel level is a high-achieving district, almost by definition.

Minnesota’s strongest schools appear on the semifinalist list as a matter of routine. For example, Wayzata High School in the Twin Cities suburb of Plymouth has produced 10 semifinalists in just the past four years.

True, Plymouth is an upscale suburb, and Wayzata High School has 3,500 students, making it the biggest in the state.

But Grand Forks has big advantages of its own — notably, the presence of UND, some number of whose scientists almost certainly would be willing to help Intel competitors.

What’s needed is not wealth. What’s needed is commitment, leadership and drive — the same factors that have produced the Summer Performing Arts program, one of the best programs of its kind in the country; the same factors that routinely land Grand Forks on lists of Top 100 districts in America in music education.

As mentioned before in this space, Byram Hills High School — a public, nonmagnet, nonspecialized school in Armonk, N.Y. — has produced 18 Intel finalists. That’s more than four times the number who’ve hailed from North Dakota in the past 72 years.

Byram Hills achieved this by making the competition a priority, and it made the competition a priority because it knows that doing so elevates math and science achievement from kindergarten on.

Grand Forks’ next School Board should consider doing the same.