Urban schools fail to meet basic needs

We have a crisis in our community. I’m not talking about welfare, teen pregnancy, crime or poverty. Yet, this crisis encompasses facets of all those problems. Last week, when the Minneapolis and St. Paul school districts released their basic skills test results, they revealed how ill-prepared the students in the two cities are for graduation and the future. The fact that so few eighth graders in these districts can pass an eighth grade basic skills test is disturbing, to say the least, and sobering at best. But the most unsettling facet of the whole issue is the fact that economics and race play a large role in the success or failure of a child.
For years, Minnesota has reviewed school testing and graduation results and lamented its position compared to the rest of the country. As a result, the state last year passed higher graduation standards, which include the requirement that all eighth-grade students must take and pass a basic skills math and reading test in order to graduate four years later. The motive of these new tests is to ensure that students know the basics, so the schools can move on to more advanced topics in high school — topics intended to prepare students for college and life beyond high school.
This year’s test results show that students do not know the basics; most of them cannot read and calculate mathematical functions at an eighth-grade level. Somewhere along the line, the educators in this state lost their priorities, and now the children are paying the price.
Officials say they have their work cut out for them, maintaining that it’s difficult to pinpoint exactly how to reach those who have failed. But these same officials realize that once a child reaches adolescence, it is more difficult to teach him or her basic skills. Clearly, it’s easier to teach these skills to younger children. Why then, didn’t these students learn the basics before they got to eighth grade?
There are a number of explanations for why this gap has occurred. The suburban school districts, which also released their testing results last week, show much higher rates of success than the city schools. In the Apple Valley-Eagan school district, for example, 80 percent of the students passed the math test and 69 percent passed the reading test. Yet, the results in Minneapolis showed only 39 percent passing in math and 43 percent in reading. St. Paul faired slightly better with 51 percent passing in math and 44 percent in reading.
School officials say suburban schools do not have the poverty problems of the cities. Furthermore, they say suburban parents have more time to give to their children because they generally have two-parent, professional homes. These two factors may be true, but they cannot adequately account for all the problems city children face because there are many city families that are indeed two-parent professional households.
Many experts did say socioeconomic status accounts for much of the trouble students are having. Throughout Minneapolis schools, students who receive free and reduced lunches fared worse than those who do not. The main problem is that students are moving in and out of the district and dropping out at high rates. At Wilder Elementary School in Minneapolis, where scores were the lowest of all, principal Azell Smith said family strength is more of a problem than family income. Only 18 percent of Wilder students passed the math test and 20 percent of students passed the reading test.
The results at Barton Elementary School, which had Minneapolis’ highest scores, would suggest stability in an area is key. Eighty-four percent of Barton eighth graders passed the math test and 78 percent passed the reading test. These scores are even better than those of the Apple Valley-Eagan students. Barton principal Steven DeLapp attributed his students’ success to a stable school population, an active parent community and a strong teaching staff.
The test scores show success was split racially as well. African-American students had the lowest success rates. Educators attribute the lower test scores to the higher concentration of poor minorities in inner-city areas. Others say race is an obstacle that presents students of color with no reason to achieve simply because no one expects them to.
With the racial and socioeconomic barriers that exist in both cities, the teachers have a tough road ahead of them. We cannot allow race and poverty to be crutches for not achieving. There has to be some way to break through the walls and urge all children to succeed. Unfortunately, the breakdown of the family structure in our society has left most of the task to teachers and school officials.
Therefore, the challenge for the Minneapolis and St. Paul school districts is to reach all students, regardless of race, and give them the skills they need to not only pass these preliminary tests, but succeed in our world. Many schools have already begun staff development programs, which help teachers pinpoint the special needs of students and meet them.
Still, schools need to prioritize topics in relation to the needs of their students. Although advanced skills are important for our constantly changing society, we must not implement accelerated standards too prematurely. First, we have to make sure all students are learning and comprehending the basic functions of reading and math. If our children can’t read, write and calculate basic functions, then all those advanced classes will not be of use to them anyway. Perhaps all the specialized education programs would be better left to higher education, at least until K-12 schooling can fix its problems.
Education funds are so scarce these days, that we need to take a very careful look at what we need, and cut what we don’t. Clearly, we need to refocus on the basic skills and eliminate some of the programs that are too specialized or ineffective. If students have a solid understanding of basic problem-solving, reading and writing skills, then they can tackle nearly any problem that comes their way.
We can’t allow children to fall between the cracks simply because they are not keeping up with the rest of the students. Primary education in this country is free to ensure equal opportunity for all. If we allow racial or socioeconomic factors to become barriers to success, then all the work of the civil rights era and beyond will have been for naught.
Michelle Kibiger’s column appears every Wednesday in the Daily.