Anti-poverty movement takes hold in Utah schools

Published May 24, 2009 5:31 pm
S.L. district » Schools take 'whole child' approach to bridge the achievement gap.
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Canyons School District Superintendent David Doty had a message recently for parents of children at Midvale Middle School.

It was important enough to deliver in person and in two languages.

"All children in this district should graduate from high school prepared for college, not just thinking about attending college, but college bound," Doty told parents Wednesday, first in English and later in Spanish.

It wasn't the most expedient way to get a point across, even for Doty, a former Spanish teacher who struggled Wednesday to explain his job title; the direct translation for "superintendent" is "building supervisor" or "custodian."

But Doty knows schools can't do it alone. So if convincing parents to support their child's learning means reaching out to them in their native tongue, so be it.

It may seem a small thing, but it's an example of a major shift in thinking among educators who have long blamed the "achievement gap" on poverty, bad parenting and other forces beyond their control.

Today schools are realizing that as trusted custodians of the nation's children, they are uniquely positioned to nurture the whole child. That means teaching young people middle-class values and enforcing high academic standards. Sometimes it means feeding them free breakfast and lunch, buying them shoes and socks or providing on-site medical and dental care.

And at Midvale Elementary, where 83 percent of the students are ethnic minorities, many of them new immigrants from Mexico, it means educating parents too.

"It's hard to get immigrant parents into schools. They're often fearful of any governmental entity," said Doty. "You really have to take the meeting to them."

Among Doty's other plans for Midvale, which also caters to Utah's largest homeless shelter: bilingual instruction in Spanish and English, expanded after-school tutoring, evening GED classes in Spanish for parents with free child care, and parenting forums to help families prepare kids to enter kindergarten.

It's a no-excuses model of education deployed most prominently by charter schools in New York, California, Massachusetts and Connecticut and documented by New York Times reporter Paul Tough and writer David Whitman.

And though no school in Utah goes to quite the same lengths, Salt Lake School District has long taken a "whole child" approach.

Salt Lake schools have Family Involvement Coordinators who link students to charities, mentors, medical care and counseling, said district spokesman Jason Olsen. Mobile dental and vision clinics make regular school stops, providing free medical care.

The district built a Community Learning Center at Rose Park Elementary School and hopes to establish others. The centers provide space for community groups to meet, including an IHC Health clinic, a program to help parents help with homework, English classes, classes on job interview skills and much more.

"It's amazing how much of a difference being able to see or not feeling the constant pain of rotting teeth will make in the academic achievement of a child," Olsen said.

Just last month, Wasatch Elementary School in Clearfield celebrated the opening of its own community center offering health care, counseling, job training, free food, Head Start and Migrant Head Start programming, adult education classes and early childhood programs.

The one-stop-shop approach has long been used by advocates for the poor and social service programs. It's now proving effective in schools through gains in test scores, though there's debate nationally about the size of those gains.

But Paul Sagers is a believer.

"Outcomes often have little to do with aptitude," said the East High School Principal. "Some of our kids haven't been given the same opportunities. We need to create more safety nets for them. The research says, if you do they'll succeed."

The school provides late busing to its after-school programs, hired an assistant principal of student support who is fluent in Spanish, and has a college-focused curriculum for all students, said Sagers. But he said even small changes reap big dividends.

"Our school boundary is as far East and as far West as you can go in this valley. Instead of having all parent teacher conferences here at East, we have one here and have one at Glendale, a middle school at the heart of our boundary," said Sager. "The net result is more parents come. It's a paradigm shift. It's about being inclusive."

kstewart@sltrib.com" Target="_BLANK">kstewart@sltrib.com



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