Schools debate diversity plans for students of color

Published 8:57 am Friday, October 1, 2010

Over the next couple of months, the way the Austin, Southland, Hayfield, Lyle and Albert Lea school districts deal with diversity issues for the next four years will be debated, revised, reported to the state and put into action. In particular, these school districts will grapple with ideas on how to decrease the significant achievement gap between white students and students of color.

The Alliance for Educational Equity, which represents these five school districts, is in the fourth year of its Desegregation Plan, which is part of a statewide initiative that ultimately brings dollars set aside for integration efforts into these districts.

Austin and Southland have operated under a Desegregation Plan since 2007, in response to the state Department of Education, which had identified Austin as a racially diverse community with a racially isolated school district. The state requested that both Austin and Southland start providing more integrated activities that would foster multicultural understanding as well as create more opportunities for students to get to know people from different backgrounds.

Email newsletter signup

“It’s really not about becoming an expert in a certain culture,” said Kristi Beckman, the integration coordinator for five school districts. “It’s just about being open to learning more about others and their values.”

From then on, Austin and Southland introduced programs and initiatives like the success coaches, which are far more hands-on with students, families and community members than the interpreters the district had hired before. The success coach program, as well as other integration programs under the Desegregation Plan, are funded through integration dollars received by the state. Austin receives $129 per pupil, which came out to $629,971 in funding this year. Other schools in the integration alliance receive $92 per pupil.

Another large component to the plan was the inclusion of mini-grants, which schools and groups within each district can apply for in order to do special projects. Southland Elementary School had one such project last year, as teachers, parents and community members were encouraged to read a children’s book, published in English and Spanish, and hold meetings to discuss the positive themes about diversity the book had to offer.

While those projects will still be included, the Alliance for Educational Equity, which grew to include the Albert Lea, Hayfield and Lyle school districts alongside Austin and Southland, will be revising and reworking some of the plan, while placing an emphasis on the significant achievement gap between caucasian students and students of color.

In the Austin district alone, hispanic and black students trailed caucasian and asian students by an average of about 30 percent in making Adequate Yearly Progress in every category during the latest round of MCA II testing, which is one of several rotating state comprehensive tests. These tests are taken by third- through 11th-graders every year. Although students aren’t required to take or pass state science tests in order to graduate, the latest results show 9 percent of hispanic students and 8.7 percent of black students made Adequate Yearly Progress in science, compared to 45.9 percent of white students and 39.1 percent of asian students.

Fixing this achievement gap is no easy task, as Beckman knows. Part of the revising process will involve checking each of the programs that comprise the plan, as well as finding more ways the alliance can hold themselves accountable. This is difficult, as there’s no concrete benchmark to measure how successful school districts are. Beckman said many sets of data are used, including state MCA II testing, school demographics and other means.