Race was a sensitive, uncomfortable subject that educator Bart Becker was taught to avoid.

But there is no avoiding the persistent, troubling disparity in test scores and graduation rates between white students and students of color across this country and in Minnesota, said Becker, assistant principal at Park Center Senior High, a Brooklyn Park school in the Osseo district.

Just 60 percent of Minnesota’s black high school students graduate in four years compared with 86 percent of whites.

Several years ago, Park Center, one of the most diverse high schools in the state, began a campaign to close that graduation gap. It’s still a work in progress, but graduation rates among students of color have risen above state averages.

In 2014, 77 percent of black students graduated on time, up from 56 percent in 2010. The number of black students graduating on time in 2013 reached an all-time high of 83 percent. The percentages of Asian and Hispanic students graduating on time have risen by double digits, as well.

As the Park Center class of 2015 prepares for graduation this weekend, teachers, principals and students talk about what has fueled these gains and how to build on them.

In 2007, Park Center adopted an International Baccalaureate program with the goal of attracting top performers from across the Osseo School district and from other members of the Northwest Suburban Integration School District.

That didn’t really happen, Becker said, but the students already in the school excelled as this new rigorous curriculum raised standards for the entire school — even for those not in the IB program.

“It brought best practices to the entire school,” Becker said.

School leaders realized that they, along with teachers, students and parents, had to have the uncomfortable conversations about race, socioeconomics, racism and how it affects education and life outside of the classroom.

“I never talked about race in my life. I was taught not to talk about race or to look at race,” Becker said.

He remembers his first experience in a workshop that discussed racial disparities in education.

“As a white person, I walked away uncomfortable. I was deeply afraid of being labeled a racist,” Becker said. “But I was committed to remaining engaged in the conversation.”

Now, race is on the table at staff meetings. It’s openly discussed.

“People are talking about race more than we ever have,” said Park Center Principal John Groenke.

How does that play out? It’s thinking about diversity in hiring, Groenke said. It’s examining how discipline and suspension affect students of color. It’s questioning why black boys end up in special education at higher rates than their white counterparts. It’s implementing policies that will help students of all races achieve at the same level.

Homework help

School leaders also realized that many students were bound by their bus schedules. They couldn’t come in early or stay late to get homework help or work on projects. Some kids from poorer families didn’t have resources like computers or Wi-Fi to do the work at home. Others served as caregivers for younger siblings and didn’t have the time outside of school.

So school leaders took homeroom time and transformed it into an “intervention time.” Students needing help in a subject could use their 30-minute homeroom time twice a week to work with a teacher in a certain subject area. It’s open to all students and benefits both high and lower achievers.

“That half-hour was a huge benefit. Teachers could now help kids who couldn’t come after school,” Becker said. “With that comes care and love. It says, ‘I am calling you here because I am not going to let you fail.’”

That additional help time also contributed to another goal: establishing positive relationships between staff and students. Teachers couldn’t just make lesson plans and grade papers. They needed to advocate for student success, and to do that, they needed to better know their students.

‘Your success matters’

“There was an intentional effort,” Beckers said. “We said, ‘You personally matter to me. Your success matters to me.’”

The campaign is also about understanding challenges some students at Park Center face. About 65 percent of the students are eligible for free or reduced-price lunches. Some have bounced from school to school as their parents move seeking work and shelter.

That understanding of a teen’s struggles outside of school is pivotal in improving outcomes, Becker said.

High School senior Ciddone Lee is graduating on time and will study to be a nursing assistant at Hennepin County Technical College. She had a baby while in high school. She’s the daughter of Hmong immigrants, and her parents had high hopes for their only girl. She told her family and teachers about the impending birth when she was eight months pregnant.

“My mom just cried. She was disappointed in me,” Lee said.

Lee knew teachers would help her finish if she wanted it badly enough. “I had hope,” she said.

Teachers did home visits, tutoring Lee so she wouldn’t fall behind. She recalled how one teacher held her baby while she did her homework.

Last year, she failed world history, and her odds of graduating on-time appeared to dim. Staff gave her a pep talk, and she retook the class.

In her first attempt at Hennepin Tech’s entrance exam, she didn’t qualify for the program, but teachers urged her to try again and she got an almost perfect score this time.

Back to basics

Park Center has created intensive reading and math programs for students who are behind their grade level.

There’s a reading lab program where students focus on catching up, in classes as small as 15. Each lab has a licensed reading teacher and a paraprofessional.

There’s a similar program in math.

“It’s about teaching kids to have grit and stick with it,” said Anne Burtman, a Park Center reading specialist. “It’s teaching them the difference between intelligence and effort.”

Malik Taylor is graduating this week. A couple of years ago, he wasn’t sure he’d be walking across the stage in cap and gown.

While he’s an athlete and popular, Taylor came into high school labeled “special education” with a history of acting out.

“I was young,” he said.

He’d moved from school to school because of family circumstances and he struggled with reading.

With pride, Taylor said he was kicked out of reading lab because he’d caught up to his grade level. “I kind of did it on my own,” he said.

He’s now thinking about junior college.

Work in progress

Groenke, who became principal last fall, said the school will intensify its efforts. And there’s plenty of room for improvement. Students of color still perform lower as a group on standardized math, reading and sciences tests than their white counterparts.

Becker said getting students of color to that graduation ceremony on time is a critical first step.

“Kids have to have hope,” he said. “They have to have a belief a teacher believes in them and I can do this.”