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The best way to go on our achievement gap-related goals is to start small and locally.

It’s something worth noting here in Minnesota, a state that features both some of the nation’s widest achievement gaps between demographic groups and a deep love for the bold, yield-uncertain, entire-district-sweeping reaction.

Eric Kalenze

While a teacher at Osseo Senior High School in the mid-2000s, I was fortunate to be part of a focused initiative-within-a-school committed to narrowing one of its most stubborn gaps.

I was one of four core-subject teachers recruited by our principal to create the Sophomore Academy. His challenge to us was fairly straightforward: After studying the school’s graduation and credit-earning statistics over a decade, he found students who ultimately chose to drop out or who needed extra time to graduate to have a distinct commonality; they had not met a minimum credits-earned threshold in their sophomore years.

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While several measurements were available to help the school predict who these kids would be and subsequently help administration erect the right kinds of supports, a troubling group of 50-100 “data-invisible” kids (i.e., students with few on-paper risk factors — who were academically capable according to standardized-test data, who were English-proficient, who had never qualified for special-education services, etc.) per year was getting by us somehow. In short, we didn’t actionably notice these kids were sliding until it was too late.

The best way to go on our achievement gap-related goals is to start small and locally.

Our job, he told us, was to build a program that would stop up this gap: Figure out who those data-invisible kids are before they get here, then fulfill our reputations as teachers adept with more challenging students by making sure they didn’t have utterly disastrous sophomore years. If we did, his data-based hunch told him, the kids would choose to stay in school and do what was necessary to get their diplomas on time.

“I’d like to remind you,” the principal told us, lowering his tone and meeting each individual’s eyes, “that I didn’t make this a first-come, first-served thing for interested staff. I knew I wanted to attack this thing, and, after thinking about it long and hard, I came to that you are the four who can make it work.”

We were able to make Sophomore Academy work, both for the kids it was missioned to serve and for the larger school community

A few of our visible wins:

  • A simple policy we had for tracking our students’ progress was later adapted for wider use in our school’s advisory program, giving all our school’s students personal academic advocates/advisers.
  • Another policy, a locker pass moratorium meant to encourage students’ personal management of preparation for learning and discourage unsupervised hall-wandering (we placed a high premium on our students in-class focus and participation — simple but necessary, we deemed, for this group of students), was also adopted school-wide and monitored via simple materials checks.
  • Significant numbers of Academy students — declared at-risk for dropping out upon entering tenth grade, remember — so believed in their abilities upon exiting their sophomore years that they registered to take Advanced Placement courses in their junior years.
  • In one year, 100 percent of my Academy students passed Minnesota’s (since-retired) Basic Skills Writing Test, a passage rate I’d never recorded in nearly ten previous years of teaching English 10 kids.

Our initially very resistant kids often surprised us with how they would hold one another accountable for class expectations, with how they would help one another through school-related and general teenage challenges, and with how genuinely they came to recognize their school as wanting the best for them.

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After watching it create such an effective foothold for so many kids, inform whole-school decisions about actions to close the achievement gap, and transform many of my professional outlooks, I can comfortably say that the Sophomore Academy experience is not one I would trade for anything.

And having so benefited, I often find myself shaking my head at all the mega-policies coming out of Minnesota’s districts.

For when it comes to closing achievement gaps within schools, I’ve seen firsthand the power of good leaders identifying focused issues, gathering small groups of grumbly teachers — the right grumbly teachers, by issue, and letting them build systems for doing what they’ve individually proven they do best.

Eric Kalenze is the author of Education Is Upside-Down: Reframing Reform to Focus on the Right Problems and a Senior Consultant for Insight Education Group. He is based in Minnesota’s Twin Cities.

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