3 districts closing achievement gaps with at-risk and minority students

Districts of Distinction achievement gap category finalists: Fordland R-3 School District, Tuscaloosa City Schools, Lansing School District 158
By: | Issue: July/August 2020
July 1, 2020
In addition to schools that are paying for AP tests and expanding school summer programs, Lansing School District 158's Equity in Facilities initiative is closing the achievement gap through school construction projects.Lansing School District 158's Equity in Facilities initiative involved renovating and expanding four schools to help close the achievement gaps of students.

Here are three K-12 districts being honored as Districts of Distinction runners-up for closing the achievement gap for various student publications including at-risk and minority learners. These honorees are paying for AP tests and dual-credit classes, expanding school summer programs for all students and providing more opportunities for students through school construction projects.

1. Fordland R-3 School District

Program: Agents of Change

Challenge: In 2015, the number of graduates who attended two- and four-year colleges declined. Money and a lack of choice were roadblocks for students to enroll in AP and dual-credit classes.

Initiative: At the Missouri district, all students can now take dual-credit classes and the AP test at the district’s expense; it pays half of the tuition and the entire book cost for all students while families pay the other half. Later, the district reimburses families 100% if students receive As, 75% for Bs and 50% for Cs. Students on free or reduced school lunch qualify to have the entire cost of tuition reimbursed to them immediately.

Impact: After schools began paying for AP tests and dual-credit classes, students now compete for and receive scholarships and admission to schools that they most likely would have never considered before the initiative. Nearly half of every class is usually enrolled in AP courses and well above the global average pass the exams. “Our students believe that they can achieve anywhere and anything because they see themselves succeeding on tests taken by the best and brightest,” says Superintendent Chris Ford. “Our educators strive to enable students to achieve more than they ever thought possible as they recognized that they are not defined by the size of their town or money, but by the effort they put into their success.”

Advice: Professional development to improve teaching and learning is key to student success and closing the achievement gap, says Ford. “But you must be willing to put up the capital upfront and be patient with the results.”

2. Tuscaloosa City Schools

Program: Summertime: More learning, less loss

Challenge: Over the last decade, overall student proficiency hovered in the low-to-mid 30s with high-poverty schools remaining in the single digits. “While we poured millions into improving outcomes, we remained oblivious to the fact that summer learning loss was placing a crippling damper on sustained learning benefits to students,” says Andrew Maxey, director of special programs.


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Initiative: In 2016-17, the Alabama district allocated funds, human capital and district-level communication bandwidth to develop school summer programs that could last 25 days. Now, the school system works to attract more than half of the entire elementary school student body. “While summer school is a common practice across the country, it is almost never transformative for a school nor is it often implemented at scale,” says Maxey.

Impact: In 2019, students in grades 3 through 5 enrolled in summer learning experienced no learning loss in reading and gained one month of learning in math. Their peers lost four months in reading and two months in math. Summer learning students in grades 6 through 8 gained one month of learning in reading and nearly two months in math while their peers lost nine months and two months, respectively. Summer learning K-2 students also outperformed their peers.

Advice: Start the process of creating school summer programs early because summer learning requires funding and time. Next, plan to a scale that your district can succeed in. Lastly, be intentional about purpose and results. “We are very specific about the students we recruit to programs and the outcomes we want,” says Maxey.

3. Lansing School District 158

Program: Equity in Facilities

Challenge: Over the last decade, the district has become increasingly diverse with more students representing economically disadvantaged populations. While these students have demonstrated significant needs, they were learning in under-equipped, outdated facilities.

Initiative: The Illinois district started a school construction program that involved renovating and expanding four campuses to provide improved technology, learning resources, social-emotional supports, nutrition, academic spaces and enrichment opportunities. Four facilities feature interactive whiteboards and document cameras in all classrooms, kinesthetic alternative seating and 1-to-1 technology. “Very few highly diverse school districts in the U.S. have managed to make these types of major, long-term building improvements in the service of students,” says Superintendent Nathan Schilling.

Impact: From 2015 to 2018, the percentage of students in grades 3 through 8 meeting or exceeding state standards increased from 15% to 24% overall as a result of the school construction program. The district began closing the achievement gap for special ed children when they began meeting state benchmarks in D158’s new schools. State site-based budgeting mandates revealed equity in operational expenditures with about $13,000 in spending per pupil in 2019.

Advice: Schools need to explore renovation and expansion. Schilling also recommends keeping existing portions of buildings intact. “This lowers the cost of construction compared to starting from scratch,” he says. Other advice includes securing no-interest Qualified School Construction Bonds, developing facility expansion plans that ensure instructional continuity and keeping school in full use by incrementally moving staff and students.

To learn more about Districts of Distinction, click here