Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Operation Family Fresh Start

The start of a new school year brings with it all of the expectations and excitement associated with boys and girls preparing for their respective futures. Especially those who are in public school.

And once again there the usual challenges...

Standardized testing, the bane of existence for many educators (not to mention parents and students), is still a prominent measure of how kids do in school. And once again, we are challenged with how to close the achievement gap between black, brown and white children.

There is good news: minorities children are doing better. There are also frustrations: 'better' does not mean the gap is closing.

This past Sunday a Dallas Morning News article on the progress being made in the 'TAKS' (Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills) test, tells us as much. "The startling reality is that while achievement is rising for all groups of students, so are the disparities between them."

""Every subgroup has made some progress, but the gap between African-American and Hispanic students and white students has grown, there's no question about it," said Ken Zornes, executive director of the Texas Business & Education Coalition and a former Dallas school board member."

"Texas was one of the first states to report test scores for individual ethnic and economic groups, in the early 1990s. The idea was to show – and to demand – progress for all groups of students, including those who had historically struggled. That same theory applies to the federal No Child Left Behind Act."

"Some education experts say that Texas could produce higher test scores for all students if the state's school rating system demanded it."

"Currently, a school's or district's rating, from "exemplary" to "unacceptable," depends almost entirely upon how many student pass the TAKS. Commended rates don't matter at all, though district officials and lawmakers are talking about placing more emphasis on the higher standard."

The degree to which the problem of academic progress in testing is chiefly related to poverty, some would say more so than race. That looks to be the discovery made in the Richardson Independent School District.

"Richardson officials say they're aware of the achievement gaps, but they don't think the disparities are mostly driven by race or ethnicity. Rather, it's poverty, Superintendent Kay Waggoner said."

"Lots of Texas educators and national experts agree. They say racial gaps reflect the fact that Hispanics and blacks tend to have lower family incomes than do whites and Asian-Americans."

"The population of the Richardson school district has changed dramatically since 2000, when whites made up half the student body. This year, white students will make up less than a third of the district's expected enrollment of about 33,000."

"As Richardson's black and Hispanic populations increased, so did the share of low-income students – from 34 percent a decade ago to 55 percent this past year. And the district's test scores declined, Deputy Superintendent Patti Kieker said."

There are many reasons for children living in poverty. But the impact of poverty and how it affects the way children learn, not to mention the impact on our society in the future cannot be ignored.

Last year Central Dallas Ministries, implemented a strategy to try and help improve the academic performance of low income children by seeking to address the issue of instability in their home environment. The strategy involves 'packaging' an array of CDM's 16 different programs, focusing them on a select group of children and their families in the Roseland Homes public housing community. We call it Operation Family Fresh Start.

Working with children who participate in our after school program, in our larger after school program and our enrichment based After School Academy, we assess both children and their parents, to identify where the children's academic progress and the needs of the household.
Operation Family Fresh Start provides children with education and enrichment programs and the parents information, accountability, support and community.
What's the result after one school year?

In the group of children participating in our traditional after school program, 72% (28 of 39 children) showed improvement in at least one subject area (math, reading, language arts or science). In the ASA (a smaller sampling, owed to the inability to get information from the school 18 of 19 or 95%) showed improvement. In the traditional program, 54% ended the school year with a grade of 80 or above. In the ASA it was 90%.

Parents received medical and counseling services, addressing behavioral or ADHD issues with their children diagnosed or treated, in some cases, for the first time. Some parents received legal services, others enrolled in job training, four families even joined church! About 14 families achieved at least one of their stated life goals with support of case management.

In the scheme of things these are not earth shattering figures. But going into a new school year, and still learning about this strategy and how work with these families, it is clear that we have the capacity to help them achieve the self sufficiency that many of them want.
We've got a lot of work to do, in other words.
But there are encouraging signs: this year, nearly 50 families have signed up to participate in the strategy. Some of those who participated last year are experiencing a new sense of community, stepping up to volunteer and become a part of the work that we are doing in the Roseland Community.
And a new principal J.W. Ray Elementary School (school most of these students attend) has brought a fresh air of excitement, cooperation and collaboration. CDM, the principal, faculty and staff have committed to work together to help provide better information, to produce even more substantive outcomes and make a deeper impact in the lives of the students and their families. This 'fresh start', was seen in the palpable enthusiasm and energy of the staff as they moved 'Meet the Parent Night' out of the school to Roseland Homes to show their solidarity with and concern for their students.

If it is true, and I believe it is, that poverty is a major factor in stifling academic achievement, the more we can do to mitigate its impact the more successful these children can be. Operation Family Fresh Start, is not an 'answer'. It's a means of replicating what most poor families don't have and that most of us take for granted: a network of resourceful relationships that help us provide a future for our children.


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