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Raising achievement and closing gaps - celebrate success!

Liza Weidle

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan recently released three major goals that are a guide to reforming our educational system.

  1. Raising standards – This means having all students graduating from high school fully prepared to succeed in college or the workplace. This can happen through the development of high common standards that allow states to share best practices and curricula.
  2. Rewarding excellence and growth – The Race to the Top” fund is in place to reward states that develop reform plans focused on raising academic standards, tracking student progress, improving teacher quality and turning around persistently low-performing schools.
  3. Closing the opportunity gap. Calling this a “shameful disparity in quality among richer and poorer school districts”, Duncan is urging everyone to get involved in whatever way we can. The Department of Education provided $4 billion in School Improvement grants to states that identify their bottom 5 percent of schools and create plans to turn those schools around.

In Wake County, a dedicated group of educators, parents, and community members have been working since 2003 on raising standards and closing gaps. The task force held an annual summit on August 20 at Raleigh (NC) Athens Drive High school to hear how 12 Wake County Public Schools (WCPSS) are closing achievement gaps -  the measurable difference on a number of educational standards between groups of students as defined by gender, socioeconomic, race/ethnicity, and ability. Most often, the groups are measured by scores on standardized scores, grade point averages, end of course tests. 

More than 250 came to learn from the schools selected to present their best practices and to share data from the last 3 years that clearly demonstrated their students are achieving more and are gaps closing as measured by performance on End of Course tests.

Wake County Schools presenting at the summit:

Elementary: Conn, Holly Grove, Reedy Creek, Wildwood Forest

Middle: Apex, Heritage, North Garner, Zebulon

High: East Wake Engineering, Garner, Holly Springs, Sanderson

North Garner Middle (NGMS) Instruction Resource Teacher (IRT) Maryn O’Neill said the Professional Learning Team (PLT)  sessions were the driving force in establishing an agenda focused on high expectations of all students. “We are paying attention daily to what kids are learning,” says O’Neill.

Dr. Camille Hedrick, principal of Apex Middle (AMS) shared the COUGAR approach to raising achievement. Each letter stands for a focus of area that creates a climate of high expectations. For example the “U” stands for unconventional and the way staff looks towards other approaches to raise achievement. AMS student Rick shared that he liked that his classroom can use Skype to talk to other classrooms and the ability to tap into online forums to post classroom discussions on books.

It was hearing about the innovative approaches that made Dr. Anne McLaurin, WCPSS School Board member, feel energized about the results. In particular, McLaurin commented on how well the schools are using data to find approaches that work. “They are not getting stuck doing the same thing every day. Looking for approaches that work today and aren’t afraid to make changes if the approaches stop working tomorrow.”

Across the county, all schools showed improvement. In a report compiled by WCPSS Evaluation and Research, evaluators reported “virtually every subgroup of students in the Wake County Public School System, and also show a closing of the achievement gaps between white, African-American, Hispanic and economically disadvantaged students at several grade levels. Additionally, 85 percent of students taking EOC tests passed those exams.”

The RACG plans another summit later in the fall that is geared towards parent and community involvement.

WCPSS Raising Achievement and Closing Gaps (RACG) Task Force formed in January 2003 and has presented at the State RACG Conference on several occasions. The purpose of the task force is to advise and work with the local board of education, central office administration, individual school site administration, and other school personnel on raising achievement and closing the gap in academic achievement as well as developing a collaborative plan for achieving that goal. Special attention has been given to creating a task force that is racially diverse and includes parents, school personnel, and representatives from human service agencies, nonprofit organizations, and the business sector.

If you district hasn’t created a Raising Achievement and Closing Gaps task force, I greatly encourage you to begin one today!

Liza Weidle is the NC Mom Congress delegate and author of "The Truth about Parenting: Navigating the Elementary Years."