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Class Struggles: High-Poverty Schools Struggle to Boost Student Learning, Parental Involvement

Ohanian Comment: No, the reporter is wrong when he says Some Kentucky schools are already at or near the proficiency goal. For them, the challenge will be sustaining that level of achievement. They have to get better and better. Remember, under NCLB, every school has to have 100% proficiency by 2014. But we can thank him for acknowledging families' economic struggles. He says parental involvement is key. I say parental economic sustainability is key.

Saying that parents lack the time to help their children or make sure they have access to technology that will help them learn is crud. What technology is necessary?

By Michael Jennings

Across the nation, high-poverty schools are also generally low-performing, and Northern Kentucky is no exception to that pattern.

The Covington schools, where 82 percent of the students receive free lunches (and probably more could qualify if their families applied), consistently earn low scores on assessments of student learning.

The Covington schools also struggle to make adequate progress toward the state's ambitious learning goals, though recent scores have been encouraging at some of the district's elementary schools.

The target for student learning is the same for all Kentucky schools: full proficiency for all students by 2014. In general, to reach that goal, high-poverty schools must make more rapid progress than other schools.

Kentucky revised its system of student testing in 1998. Two years later, when the Commonwealth Accountability Testing System (CATS) had been phased in, the state computed a baseline score for each school.

Tests were given in core subject areas, and based on the results each school received an index score on a 140-point scale. The state plotted the rate of progress the school would need to make to reach proficiency, defined as a score of 100, by the target date.

Students are tested each year, but the crucial measurements of schools take place at the end of two-year testing cycles. Based on where a school's score falls in relation to its projected rate of progress, it is rated as meeting its goal, progressing or needing assistance. No school scoring above 80 receives assistance, even if it falls well short of its projected score.

Another Type of Challenge

Some Kentucky schools are already at or near the proficiency goal. For them, the challenge will be sustaining that level of achievement.

The CATS scores released last fall represent the first half of a two-year testing cycle. Fort Thomas schools earned the region's highest average index scores at the elementary, middle and high school levels.

The district's Woodfill Elementary School earned an index score of 104.6, and Moyer Elementary earned a score of 102.

The Covington schools received the region's lowest average scores at all three levels, but district officials were heartened by progress at Latonia Elementary School, which scored 77.1, and Ninth District Elementary, which scored 77.7. Ninth's District's score was more than six points above its goal for the two-year cycle, which ends this year.

Those scores put the two schools within range of the overall academic index for elementary students statewide in each of the last two years - 81.5.

Jack Moreland, the Covington superintendent, said obstacles to further progress include high rates of student transience and homelessness and the difficulty of getting parents engaged in their children's learning.

By the end of each school year, about 35 percent of the district's students will leave and be replaced by students who are new to Covington, Moreland said. He said about 10 percent of the district's students are homeless by federal standards, meaning they have no permanent domicile.

Parental Involvement is Key

While each school can count on a number of involved, supportive parents, the Covington schools have had little success eliciting "sustained parent involvement across the entire district," Moreland said.

He said that's due in large part to families' financial struggles. Some parents hold down two or three jobs, he said, and they lack the time to help their children or make sure they have access to technology that will help them learn.

Moreland said he doesn't mean to fault parents, "because I know in my heart that our parents care as much about their kids as any parents anywhere in the world."

Michael Brandt, the Newport schools superintendent, said his district reaches out to parents through a program of in-home visitation-conducted under contract with the Brighton Center-that is aimed at stimulating brain development beginning in infancy.

"The trick is getting them (parents) comfortable that they actually play a role as collaborators for teachers in student achievement," Brandt said.

Barb Stonewater, executive director of the Northern Kentucky Council of Partners, calls the lack of parental engagement a "terribly difficult issue" for schools. She said she hopes that, as part of its work under a federal GEARUP grant - aimed at getting low-income students on track for college - her agency can help the Covington and Newport schools surmount it.

Getting involved in children's learning doesn't have to mean "helping them do algebra homework," Stonewater said. Parents can provide a powerful boost to schools' efforts, she said, simply by telling their children that education is their ticket to a good life.

"We've got to find ways to help parents understand that this is not a threat to them," she said. "This is a way for them to help their child."

— Michael Jennings
The Sunday Challenger


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