by NATHANIEL NELSON
Winona Area Public Schools (WAPS) Board members got some bad news at their most recent board meeting: Under Minnesota’s World’s Best Workforce (WBW) legislation, WAPS failed to meet any of its academic achievement goals.
Director of Learning and Teaching Maurella Cunningham shared the 2018 report, and board members called for a change into how the district is approaching the program for next year.
Five different goals were measured for the 2017-2018 school year: the district would increase its preschool enrollment, third-grade reading proficiency would increase by seven percent, WAPS would decrease its achievement gap by half by 2018, 70 percent of students would be considered “college ready” as indicated by ACT scores, and 85 percent of students would graduate within four years.
Last year, the district’s preschool enrollment increased from 139 students in 2017 to 153 students in 2018, fulfilling the goal of increasing preschool enrollment.
However, that was the only goal the district met last year.
For third-grade reading, the district’s goal was to increase third-grade proficiency for all students by seven percent. The district achieved a fraction of that with an increase of a mere 0.5 percent. The district also set out under WBW to cut the achievement gap between minority students and their white peers by half over several years, with the goal of reaching the measure this year. WAPS did not. While the report did not provide detailed information about how the achievement gap changed over the course of the year, it did indicate that proficiency rates generally increased by 0.5 percent in reading, though the achievement gap widened among Native American students, African-American students and students identifying as more than two races. In science, test scores dropped for low-income students, but rose for English language learners and special education students; overall, WAPS’ science scores were reported as nearly nine percent below the state’s average.
The district had also set a goal of having 70 percent of students considered ready for college as demonstrated by the ACT in English, math, science and social sciences. Only 23 percent of students met the college readiness benchmark.
Finally, the graduation rate goal for 2018 was having all student groups at or above an 85 percent graduation rate. According to the report, preliminary data indicates a 60.9-percent graduation rate for 2018.
Board chair Ben Baratto was the first to note the negatives of the yearly review. “I see a lot of boxes checked ‘goal not met,’ which leads me to believe we have a lot of work to do,” Baratto said.
Board member Jeanne Nelson lamented the current state of the district, referencing the recent school sale and referendum work, and stated that now that those parts are beginning to fully move forward, the district should turn its eye toward curriculum.
“I can hardly wait until we get our facility questions straightened out and we can spend our time focusing on students achievement and what our students need,” she said.
Nelson argued that the district should search for money in the general fund to help improve test scores by adding curriculum help and other services to boost students’ learning capability.
“We have been talking about this for six years and I do know until we take a commitment to do something different, we’re not going to bring about the change,” Nelson said.
Last year, the district was in a similar state. The goal for lowering the achievement gap was the same, and more detailed numbers presented last year showed the district failed to meet its goals by double digits in every subject and group measured, and while third-grade reading proficiency was meant to increase to 80 percent, it only cracked 70 by the end of the year. According to next year’s set of goals, WAPS’ current third-grade reading proficiency rests at just 50.9 percent.
Cunningham, who presented the data, also detailed various initiatives the district will use in the coming year to help achieve its new goals. For third grade, teachers will be following the new English curriculum started this year more closely, and other educational opportunities will be given to students.
“[We will be] continuing to focus on early literacy, giving equitable access to books and books to all students over the summer months,” Cunningham said, which will increase opportunities for personalized learning.
For the achievement gap, teachers will be trained in cultural competency to make sure they are equipped to reach different demographics, and guided study halls will be implemented in new ways to focus on individual student growth. Cunningham added that the district will be looking at ways to partner with other districts and the state’s Department of Education to bring scores up.
Superintendent Rich Dahman stressed that improving the outcomes of these yearly reviews are crucial. “We need to get better at meeting the academic needs of all students, across the district,” he said, while noting that WAPS did show some improvement from the year before.
But according to the summary, that improvement is minimal, and the goals for 2018 have been set to match.
Instead of working toward 70 percent of students meeting the college readiness benchmark on all ACT tests, the new goal is an increase of 10 percent in each subject tested — which would aim for 58-percent proficient in English, 48-percent proficient in math, 45-percent proficient in reading, and 41-percent proficient in science.
For 2018-2019, the district has set a goal of increasing third-grade reading proficiency from 50.9 percent to 65 percent, though Dahman later stated the goal may be dropped to 60 percent. In 2016, that goal was 80 percent.
“We need goals that are achievable, but also stretch us as a district,” Dahman said.
Even with the dropped numbers, board member Allison Quam stated that the goals seem too high, with a recurring theme in WBW summaries being a failure to meet the goals each year. She went on to argue that goals should be set in a way that is manageable, and not just a grand gesture.
“It’s important to have rigor and high expectations, but I do have worries. When we have an increase of 0.5 percent and when our goal is 10 percent, I’m worried about not being able to meet it,” Quam said.