Students offer views on closing Minnesota’s persistent achievement gap
Christopher Magan, Pioneer Press, November 13, 2012 – Teachers from across the Twin Cities came to St. Mary’s University to brainstorm ways to tackle Minnesota’s persistent achievement gap.
But the conference Tuesday, Nov. 13, in Minneapolis was different than most meetings that try to address the divide in the achievement of white and affluent students and their poor and minority counterparts.
This time, the students who deal with the hurdles, what some call the “opportunity gap,” took part in the discussion.
About 100 students from eight high schools and one middle school were invited to the daylong event to share their experiences with peers and educators.
Teachers heard from students like Averie Mitchell-Brown, a 17 year-old Apple Valley High School junior, who said educators often dismiss the cultural differences between themselves and their students. That “one-size fits all” approach makes students from diverse backgrounds feel unimportant, she said.
“There are some teachers who don’t know how to keep an open mind,” Mitchell-Brown said. “You can’t have a relationship with every student, but they need to be able to come to you when they have a problem.”
Blaine Crawford and Mashal Sherzad, seniors at Blake High School in Minneapolis, gave a presentation to teachers that explained how slight “dismissals” of students’ concerns or questions can eventually impact achievement. They also encourage their peers to become better advocates for themselves.
“There are small things that occur that build up over a student’s life,” Crawford said. “Students need to be able to know how to enhance their own learning environments.”
Alissa Case taught Mitchell-Brown at Apple Valley High School before joining St. Mary’s to direct the culturally responsive teaching program. She invited many of the students who attended and her work focuses on training teachers to reach students from backgrounds they may be unfamiliar with.
Case said input from students about how their feelings and experiences has been overlooked but is invaluable.
“Often educators make decisions for young people with good intentions, but we haven’t really been listening to their voices,” Case said. “They constantly feel their voices, especially students of color, are marginalized.”
Minnesota educators across the state are taking similar new steps to ensure all students have equal opportunities. As part of the state’s waiver from the federal No Child Left Behind law, the Minnesota Department of Education revised how schools are graded, putting schools’ efforts to close the gap under the microscope.
The goal is to cut the gap in half over the next six years.
Stacy Wells, Rosemount-Apple Valley-Eagan’s educational equity coordinator, said her district has put a new emphasis on culturally responsive teaching including a partnership with St. Mary’s. There also are a growing number of ways students can discuss issues with teachers and administrators.
“You can’t solve a problem or even begin to address it, until you’ve talked to the people who it affects most,” Wells said.
That approach was evident when students participated in a roundtable discussion with teachers Tuesday, Wells said. “It was energizing. In some cases, it made people hopeful, because it wasn’t all just doom and gloom.”
Case believes she can use the information gathered from students to better inform teaching and the teacher training.
“If we are not bringing multiple perspectives to the table, than we are missing students who are not like us,” Case said. “Teachers need to be ready to teach all kids.”