Help for students is stuck between old models and new data, consultant tells Wake panel

Tactics from the 1960s that identified "at-risk" students by race or economic status are still embedded in some thinking and some laws even though modern tools make it possible to analyze data for individual students, a Wake school board task force heard.

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GARNER, N.C. — Programs intended to help at-risk students are caught between old models that classified students by race, income or other categories and the current ability to look at data about how individual children perform in school, a Wake schools task force on economically disadvantaged students heard Thursday.

Classifying students as at risk according to demographic information is a holdover from the 1960s War on Poverty, a program evaluator and former math teacher told the group in a meeting at Garner High School.

It's now possible to gather and analyze data about individual students, Janet Johnson, founder and president of EDSTAR Inc., said, but some regulations remain based on the older system. For example, schools that have high percentages of low-income students and that fail to make adequate academic progress every year have to begin remediation for everyone in certain groups, she said.

Regulators are learning, she said, to evaluate programs by the results they produce for students instead of counting how many students in certain groups were given how many services, regardless of the outcome.

What happens sometimes, however, is that minority or other students who actually score highly on end-of-grade tests in middle school are dragged down by the programs, Johnson said. In addition, a self-fulfilling situation occurs in which teachers and counselors who know a student has been put in an improvement program believe that student must be at risk academically and do not recommend him or her for advanced classes, she said.

Data show that students who come from demographic groups long labeled as "at risk" can often do better than they are given credit for, Johnson added.

Schools are in a no-man's land in the change from old, demographic-based thinking to new data-driven ways, she said.

Elaine Hanzer, principal of Wake Forest Rolesville Middle School, and Assistant Principal Patches Jacobs, described their school's pilot program of pushing math students who had scored well on end-of-grade tests into eighth-grade algebra without pre-algebra work and bringing parents into the program to support the moves, even though the students had not been considered capable of that work.

The program identified 50 students who had scored in the 80th percentile or higher on tests but who were not being recommended for higher-level classes.

"They were lacking the push" to reach higher, Hanzer said. "We recultured their minds," and the students succeeded, she reported.

The task force, which technically is a school board committee of three members but has dozens of community and organization leaders and community advocates, is the brainchild of board member John Tedesco, who has driven a move to assign students to schools in their communities rather than trying to balance socioeconomic diversity across the system's 150-plus schools.

One of Tedesco's arguments against diversity has been that school systems stereotype students by race or economic level and create programs that lower their expectations for themselves.

The task force goal, Tedesco told the group, is "to create some real solutions for real kids" by making suggestions for school board actions.




Ron Gallagher, Web Editor

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