Grissom column: Programs aim to close achievement gap

Published 12:00 am Saturday, December 19, 2009

Across the country, schools continue to struggle with meeting the needs of all students and narrowing the gap between various populations of students. The Rowan-Salisbury School System faces the same challenges with student achievement as the state and nation.
The State Board of Education requires that every school district in North Carolina formulate a local task force or committee for Closing the Achievement Gap. The purpose of the committee is to advise and work with the local school district in developing ideas for collaboratively raising student achievement and closing the gap between various groups of students. The Rowan-Salisbury School System established a Closing the Achievement Gap committee that meets on a regular basis. The group has identified numerous initiatives to address the achievement gap in the school system.
The following are just a few of the many on-going activities:
Faith-based Initiatives: Forty-four local churches are participating in partnerships with various schools across the school system in helping to meet the multiple needs of students. Several examples of projects are:
– Providing items for a school’s clothing closet.
– Mentoring and tutoring students.
– Purchasing agendas for students.
– Providing cafeteria supervision for teachers to have a duty-free lunch.
– Monetary gifts.
– Buying student uniforms.
– Packing bookbags with food for students to take home on the weekend.
– Donating school supplies, etc.
Reading Foundations/Literacy Programs: Reading Foundations is a course designed by the N.C. State Improvement Project to improve teacher instruction for students who struggle in reading. It is based on the National Reading Panel and Multisensory Teaching of Basic Language Skills by Judith Birsh. The purpose of this course is to provide teachers with an understanding of the instructional principles derived from scientific-based research. Reading Foundations dives deep into the five areas of reading (Phonological Awareness, Alphabetic Principle, Decoding/ Encoding, Fluency and Comprehension/Vocabulary) to provide a solid foundation of knowledge and skills. This type of early intervening service will address reading concerns in the K-3 grade span, which has been proven to effectively assist with closing the achievement gap.
Response To Intervention: This is a statewide initiative that provides early intervening services to students who are struggling prior to being identified as exceptional students. This process has greatly reduced the number of inappropriate identifications of students as disabled, especially in areas that are commonly found to disproportionately represent minorities. Rowan-Salisbury School System currently has five of the 20 elementary schools that are serving as Response to Intervention sites. The schools administer universal screenings to all students to identify struggling learners and begin research-based interventions that address academic deficits. Response to Intervention has been shown to be a very effective way to help close the achievement gap by addressing the needs of students through scientifically proven methods.
Professional Development: District-wide professional development opportunities have been conducted with closing the achievement gap as the primary target. District administrators have participated in Eric Jensen’s “Engaging the Brains of Poverty” professional development and are currently conducting the training at the school level with implementation to follow. Educational consultant Larry Bell has presented both at the district level as well as various schools within the system. His strategies provide ideas for teachers to encourage “at-risk” students to be successful in the classroom. To heighten the awareness of diversity in the classroom, groups of teachers throughout the district have attended cultural awareness seminars. Professional development that blends the philosophies of Eric Jensen and Ruby Payne’s “A Framework for Understanding Poverty” has been designed and shared at various schools. The focus of the training is to foster an understanding of how diversity and poverty impact student achievement.
Rowan County Early College: This program on the campus of Rowan-Cabarrus Community College continues to be a huge success in its second year of operation. The Rowan County Early College is designed for students who are often under-represented at four-year colleges, including those who would be first-generation college students and those who need financial assistance to attend college.
A major priority for the Rowan-Salisbury School System is to maximize the learning potential of all students. While having high expectations for all students, the school system will continue to enhance initiatives that will help to narrow the gap between sub-groups.
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Dr. Judy Grissom is superintendent of the Rowan-Salisbury School System.

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