by SARAH SQUIRES
After significantly lowering its academic accountability goals last year, Winona Area Public Schools (WAPS) has again failed to meet any of those academic aspirations. The only goal under the district’s World’s Best Workforce (WBWF) plan that was met was the one not measured by proficiency testing — increasing the number of preschoolers with an emphasis on those from low-income families.
In addition to not meeting the WBWF academic goals, several academic measures dropped when compared to last year. In particular, rather than increasing third-grade reading proficiency by five percent, scores actually dropped nearly 10 percent over last year, down to 42.1 percent of third graders testing as proficient in reading.
Several board members said that root problems should be explored, and that the plan for next year’s goals needs to be overhauled. Board member Allison Quam, who has advocated for music and art, said studies have shown students who are exposed to music and art on a daily basis have an easier time grasping academic subjects like reading and math, and asked that the district factor that into its approach for improvements. She said she found the drop in third-grade reading skills “extremely troubling.” “What I would really like to see is a very in-depth study of what is happening in the classroom that is interfering with the children being able to learn,” she continued. She said she’d heard that behavioral problems were occurring and wondered whether it might be tied to learning struggles. “I just think that we need to have a really honest and uncomfortable conversation about why this [score] dropped to what it is.”
The WBWF plan is part of Minnesota’s waiver from the Federal No Child Left Behind mandate, and is aimed at serving as a public schools accountability program. Each district is required to adopt a range of goals focused on things like literacy, successful graduation, and college and career readiness.
One of the district’s goals was to increase the average score on an assessment in kindergarten measuring students’ competency of letter sounds per minute, hoping to increase from 4.3 letter sounds from last year to five this year. That assessment stayed the same this year, at 4.3 letter sounds per minute.
WAPS also aimed to increase preschool enrollment from 153 last year to 160 this year, with a focus on students who qualify for free and reduced price lunches. Preschool enrollment grew to 189 this year, and the percentage of students who qualify for free and reduced price lunches increased from 25 to 26 percent.
For the third-grade reading goal, WAPS hoped to improve proficiency levels from 50.9 percent last year to 55.9 percent this year; however, that dropped to just 42.1 percent considered proficient in reading this year.
The plan also included goals to shrink the achievement gap between white students and students of color. In math, the goal was to decrease the gap from 26.7 percent to 20 percent; that goal was not met, but the gap did decrease slightly to 25.3 percent. In reading, the plan called for lessening the gap from 23.5 percent to 20 percent; that goal was also not met, but the gap did shrink slightly to 22.1 percent.
In the career and college readiness area, the WBWF plan aimed to increase the composite ACT score for all students from 19.7 percent to 20, but that composite score rose by just one-tenth of a percent.
WBWF also calls for improvements to graduation rates, but for WAPS, rather than improving graduation rates over last year, they dropped at both the Winona Senior High School (WSHS) and Winona Area Learning Center (ALC). The grad rate at WSHS fell from 93 percent to 91 percent, and the ALC plunged from 28.8 percent to 13.2 percent.
Director of Learning and Teaching Maurella Cunningham explained the various programs being utilized in various grades and subject areas to make improvements in learning, and said that teachers are being given more time to meet in groups to focus on planning for instruction and analyzing student data. Additionally, teachers have the option to work with instructional coaches to help tackle student data assessment and tailor instruction to their needs.
She presented a draft WBWF plan for next year that includes goals that are very similar to the ones not met this year. For the second year, several board members said they felt the plan needed to be changed and that several of the goals — particularly third-grade reading — could be difficult to meet and should be altered. Additionally, the plan for meeting those goals needed to be scrutinized, they said.
“Again, we didn’t meet our goals, so what in this plan was the same in the previous year and the previous year, and how are we going to make it different in the coming year?” asked Quam, saying that if the district adopted the same strategies, it would likely get the same results. “Something has to change.”
“I concur … if we keep doing the same thing we keep getting the same results, and I don’t think anyone is pleased with the results that we are getting,” added WAPS Board Chair Nancy Denzer. “To me the whole plan really needs to be revisited.”
One of the areas that the district has long sought to improve is its achievement gap between white students and students of color. Research shows that students of color who are exposed to teachers of color perform better in the classroom. With a nearly all-white teaching staff, the board discussed ways that educators of color could be recruited and retained.
Cunningham said that the districts Diversity and Equity Committee has been working with organizations across the state, and members were planning to attend a Racial Equity Leadership Institute training this winter.
The board must submit a new WBWF plan and goals to the Minnesota Department of Education by mid-December, and is expected to vote to finalize a plan at its next meeting on December 5. “We have a short amount of time to create a document that’s workable and in such a way that we can have a different conversation next year,” noted board member Jim Schul.