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Emphasis on literacy pays off for Brown Deer

Active approach helps close achievement gap

April 21, 2012

There aren't as many positive stories about closing the achievement gaps between black and white students as anyone would like, but here's one - and it's from right under our noses.

Brown Deer is a changing community and school district. If that label carries negative weight with you, look at some of the good things happening in Brown Deer, specifically, that the schools are responding well to challenges and getting results.

Here are a few facts that may surprise you:

Fewer than a third of the students at Brown Deer High School are white. Just under half are African-American and the rest are Asian, Hispanic or in a fairly new category, "two or more" races or ethnic groups. The white percentage for the district was 75% in 1995-'96, 46% in 2006-'07 and 32% this year. The proportion of students who are low-income - defined as qualifying for free or reduced price lunch - went from 22% five years ago to 39% this year.

Here's a claim that, to my knowledge (and the knowledge of Brown Deer school officials), no other district in Wisconsin can make: On this year's state tests, black 10th-graders in Brown Deer did better in reading than Wisconsin students as a whole. To be specific, 84.2% of Brown Deer's black sophomores were rated proficient or advanced in reading. For all students in the state, the figure was 78.1%. For all black Wisconsin 10th-graders, it was 47.7%.

There are still gaps in the fourth-, eighth- and 10th-grade reading and math scores, but they're modest compared to many other places. Among fourth-graders, 85% of black students and 89.3% of white students were at least proficient readers, a difference of only 4.3 percentage points. And those rated "minimal" in reading in fourth grade, a major warning of problems? Zero for both whites and blacks.

How they did it

They are obviously doing some good things in Brown Deer. There is plenty more to work on, and this year's good news could evaporate down the road. But there is evidence that what they're doing is paying off. Here are some of the keys, based on the data and a session I had last week with a half-dozen school system leaders:

Being honest with themselves. "We had to acknowledge as a learning community where our kids are," Superintendent Deb Kerr said. Often, school leaders aren't fully candid with themselves or others about how students are doing. Kerr said the Brown Deer school community realized that it had gaps and weaknesses in its own programs, and needed to address them.

Time on task. Jim Piatt, principal of Brown Deer High, has a list of eight things the school has done that underlie a general upward trend in reading. First on the list: Increasing the amount of time spent on literacy skills, especially for those who are struggling. The school's block schedule - four extended periods a day, instead of the conventional seven or eight shorter periods - makes it easier to give struggling readers at least 90 minutes a day of instruction. Other time has also been devoted to intervening with kids who are not reading well.

Higher expectations, and making them stick. Here's the best example: Starting two years ago, students were required to pass a course, Introduction to High School English, before being promoted to 10th grade. As many as 40 students in the 600-student school have been told they have to take summer courses or accept other help before moving up. Piatt said some families have withdrawn from the school over this, but the number of ninth- and 10th-graders doing poorly in reading classes has dropped measurably.

Individual attention. Brown Deer is doing the same things lots of schools are doing, things like Response to Intervention, an approach that focuses on each student's needs, starting from early grades, tailoring instruction to each. Things like using data a lot more to identify problems early, and not placing new students in classes until each one's abilities are assessed. The evidence suggests the schools are doing this well (or, to use the education jargon, with "fidelity").

Focus on literacy. From kindergarten on up, reading and language schools are at the center of attention. Piatt said you would think you didn't need to emphasize reading at a high school, but research shows focusing on literacy is a trademark of schools where gaps are narrowing. An example of change: Three years ago, Brown Deer had no high school teachers with reading certifications. Now there are three.

Maybe Brown Deer just had a good year this year. A year ago, the overall averages for 10th-graders in all five subjects in the state tests were below state averages. This year, they were all above. Maybe next year's results won't be as encouraging. School improvement is subject to setbacks and anticipated challenges.

But there seems to be a good case for optimism that Brown Deer can move forward. Not only do the academic changes seem to be gaining traction, but the suburban community approved $22 million in a referendum last year that will bring much improved school facilities. Furthermore, at least as of now, leaders say they are not only dealing with the Madison-imposed changes in state funding and management rights, but benefiting from them. The district had an unusual number of retirements last year (about 10% of the 135-teacher staff), but Kerr said the staff is stable and strong now.

You've heard of institutions that are too big to fail? When it comes to tackling gaps and low achievement, leaders seem to think the district of about 1,650 is too small to fail. It's a place where you can get your hands around problems.

"We don't have magical solutions," Kerr said. But, she added, "We've got a chance to do this, we've got a chance to close this achievement gap."

Alan J. Borsuk is senior fellow in law and public policy at Marquette University Law School. Reach him at alan.borsuk@marquette.edu.

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