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OUR OPINION: To Grand Forks schools: Take pride AND show resolve

Our Opinion

The good news was very good for the Grand Forks School District in Herald staff writer Jennifer Johnson’s Sunday report (“The state of our schools,” Page A1).

But there was bad news for the district as well — or at least, some trends and numbers that seem, on their face, to put the district in a bad light.

Here’s a word to the wise on the Grand Forks School Board and in the administration offices: Rivet your attention on those negative trends, like an assistant principal would stare at a disobedient child.

Because turning those numbers around would be a terrific achievement, speak volumes about the district’s quality and fill Grand Forks residents with pride.

On the bright side, the district seems to be succeeding at one of K-12’s most challenging tasks: teaching students from low-income families to read and read well.

Among North Dakota’s major metro areas, “Grand Forks has held the highest percentage of low-income students, defined by the number of students who qualify for free and reduced meals,” Johnson reported.

Last year, that number was 36 percent. But despite this, Grand Forks also achieved the highest reading-proficiency number among low-income students: 66 percent, compared with the state average of 60 percent and other metro-area scores in the 55 percent to 60 percent range. 

Let’s assume the numbers accurately convey the real-life situation in those districts. If that’s the case, then Grand Forks’ administrators and educators can take credit for a job well done. Bringing low-income students up to and even beyond grade level on foundational skills is something of a Holy Grail in education. Researchers have spent generations looking for successful methods.

So, if Grand Forks’ remedial-reading efforts are succeeding for solid majorities of students and the numbers hold up, that’s fantastic. Congratulations all around for the teachers’ good and successful work.

But speaking of remediation, the numbers of Grand Forks students who need remedial education in college aren’t so flattering. In a chart labeled “Percent of post-secondary enrollment from 2008 to 2013 for students who needed remedial coursework,” the district’s numbers ran high.

For example, do 37 percent of Red River High School graduates who attend regional four-year institutions (besides UND and North Dakota State University) really need remedial coursework?

The day is coming when all of the high schools in North Dakota and Minnesota will be graded on that standard. The Grand Forks district could get in front of the trend if the district would survey grads about their experiences in college, identify weaknesses in the secondary-school curriculum — and correct them.

Last but not least, Grand Forks’ school officials should pay attention to the powerful number of annual cost per student. The local number is $10,971, and the news is that this number remains the highest among North Dakota districts this size.

In our view, Grand Forks residents gladly will pay more — if they’re persuaded that they’re getting more in return. That means a district that delivers better test scores, college-remediation rates and other indicators than anywhere else.

Is that the case in Grand Forks? Administrators shouldn’t rest until they can answer that question, evidence in hand, with an unequivocal “yes.”