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U partnership takes a different tack in addressing achievement gap: asking kids what works

U of M researchers have been gathering input from 500 students at a school in St. Paul, developing customized curriculums aimed at getting students more engaged in school. 

Parkway Montessori students Jewels Vang Soua Tao, Christian Jones and Chris Smith discussing what their school would be like if it had no teachers of color.
MinnPost photo by Kristoffer Tigue

The University of Minnesota is taking a novel approach to tackling the state’s persistent achievement gap: they’re asking the students for help.

A partnership between the U of M, St. Paul Public Schools and the district’s afterschool community network Sprockets is wrapping up a five-month-long pilot project this Wednesday at Northrop Auditorium, where it will showcase their results along with a handful of personal videos created by the students who participated.

Since January, University researchers have been gathering input from 500 students at Parkway Montessori Middle School in St. Paul and using that information to develop more customized curriculums to get students more engaged in their schoolwork. The University plans to follow up with a five-year longitudinal study across several other schools this fall.

“I think it’s interesting that we’ve never asked the students ‘What is it that you need? What matters to you?’” said Jigna Desai, a professor of gender, women and sexuality studies at the University of Minnesota. “How better to engage the youth than to ask what they’re interested in?”

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Last year, only 68 percent of students of color graduated high school on time compared to the state average of 82 percent, according to the Minnesota Department of Education. Students of color also trail behind white students in reading and math proficiency by as much as 40 percent.

Desai blames some of those figures on a lack of student enthusiasm. Students won’t learn if they’re not interested in what they’re learning, she said, so their goal aims at pinpointing their student’s interests and using that to get them more engaged in school. “We really want to focus on how to empower them on what they know already and build on that,” she said.

The idea came from studies coming out of California that suggest that culturally-tailored curriculums boost student engagement and attendance, Desai said, which ultimately improves their overall performance in school.

Parkway Montessori Principal Timothy Hofmann said he’s already seeing increased engagement among his students since the program started at the beginning of the year.

Christian Jones, a 6th grader at Parkway Montessori, said the program got him interested in current events after he learned about the public water crisis in Flint, Michigan. “That makes me feel bad because my dad is from Michigan,” Jones said. “I have family there.”

Eighth-grade Jewels Vang Soua Tao said more kids need to feel inspired outside of what they see in the media. “A lot of kids are like ‘Oh, I want to be a rapper or a basketball player,’” she said. “It’s because there are a lot of black people that are basketball players or rappers. You don’t see a lot of black people anywhere else.”

Soua Tao said meeting college students and professors of color through the University’s program gave her role models to look up to. When she graduates high school, she hopes to go to college to become a veterinarian, she said, and she’s glad their school was picked for the pilot.

“It’s a once in a lifetime chance,” she said. “They don’t go to every school to help kids. They came to our school to help us.”

On Wednesday, Soua Tao along with other Parkway Montessori students will travel to Northrop, where a handful of them will present their personal stories to University President Eric Kaler and Generation Next Executive Director and former Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak (who will soon be taking over at the Minneapolis Foundation), followed by a tour of the campus.

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More teachers of color

Another part of the program is to examine what University researchers call the “relationship gap,” said Desai, to see why students of color tend to do better in school when their teachers come from similar racial backgrounds.

What they’re seeing is that many of the schools where these disparities persist are lacking teachers of color, she said. “Many of the schools here [in St. Paul] are predominately students of color,” she said. “And yet many of the teachers are white.”

Hofmann admitted that with almost 70 percent students of color at the school, his staff isn’t as diverse as he’d like it to be. Currently, there’s about 25 percent staff of color, he said, and he’s hoping to increase that amount as soon as possible. “We need more professionals of color in our building,” he said.

Desai said she believes teachers of color can better engage with students of color because they can teach from the student’s own experiences and history, and can help place their students contextually within it. And with national debate over race at an all-time high, she said, it’s particularly important to ensure students understand how their history led them to their life now.

“If youths don’t know their history, all they get is the dominant representations in media and in text books,” she said.