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Duluth school’s effort at community, family services boosts learning gap

DULUTH, Minn. -- A Duluth elementary school has been touted by the state teachers union for its success in narrowing gaps in learning. Education Minnesota released a report Thursday that points to the success of schools with community and family ...

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DULUTH, Minn. -- A Duluth elementary school has been touted by the state teachers union for its success in narrowing gaps in learning.

Education Minnesota released a report Thursday that points to the success of schools with community and family services built into their programming in reducing achievement gaps. The Central Hillside Myers-Wilkins Elementary is one of the two examples in its study. It's a school with a high poverty rate and a transient population that often sees academic gaps narrow for several groups of students, despite its demographics. For nearly two decades the elementary school has been operating with a community model, now called the Myers-Wilkins Community School Collaborative, expanding it over time.

The state teachers union has called for less testing and promotes other ways to narrow gaps between students of color and white students, and students in poverty and those who are not. It's lobbying for more state money for schools to add community programming. The state dedicated $500,000 for schools this past year for things like site coordinators who work to organize and bring in resources, but it did not cover the number interested, said Denise Specht, president of Education Minnesota.

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State testing data from 2014 shows that black, Native American, special education and low-income students at Myers-Wilkins were meeting targets in math and reading, and Native American and Hispanic students saw more growth than white students statewide in math.

The school is also impressive for its results in increasing volunteerism and satisfaction among parents and students, Specht said.

With the model at Myers-Wilkins, "you've got the community actually shaping what happens in the school both during the day and after school and on weekends."

A community school might include after-school and summer programs, health care and social services and tutoring and family nights where meals are served and resources are offered. Community schools in high poverty neighborhoods can work to not only close achievement gaps, but help with school readiness, graduation rates, health care gaps and discipline referrals, Specht said, noting teachers aren't experts in every area of need of a student.

Myers-Wilkins -- with an 83 percent free or reduced price lunch population -- recently added a community health nurse, with another on the way. When students have their basic needs met, it's easier for them to learn, educators say.

Having that nurse this year put one family on the path to discovering their child was suffering from Lyme disease, said principal Stephanie Heilig.

Data shows that kids in the school's six-week summer program do better the following year than students who don't take part, she said. During the year, students have the chance to stay at the school until 5 p.m. four days a week for extra academic work, and are given a snack and transportation home. Family nights at the school of 440 can range between 200 and 400 people.

"I've been in the hillside as an educator for the majority of 40 years," Heilig said, and an administrator for more than a decade. "When I started (as an administrator) we had very, very, very little parent participation."

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Listening to what parents need and what the school can do to make them feel more comfortable coming to it and engaging in their kids' education has been key, Heilig said. Out of those conversations has come things like next week's Polar Express night for second-graders and their families. Kids will get free, donated pajamas and hear a telling of the book while parents learn how to help their kids become better readers. At the end of the night parents can help their kids choose up to three free books. Transportation is always offered for nights like these, Heilig said, because it can be such a barrier to parent involvement.

The school applies for grants to pay for much of what it offers, said Bernie Burnham, president of the Duluth Federation of Teachers.

"More and more, we know it's not just about the school," she said. "The saying 'it takes a village' certainly applies here."

Burnham said a goal for the district is to add the model to other high-poverty schools. Lincoln Park Middle School is already working to do so. Both Lincoln Park and Myers-Wilkins have applied for grant money from the state education department for their programs.

Related Topics: FAMILY
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