More focus helping to make strides

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Posted: Wednesday, November 6, 2013 12:00 am

When Hillary Clinton cited an African proverb for the title of her 1996 book “It Takes a Village,” the phrase quickly gained currency, both famously and infamously.

When the Learning Community of Douglas and Sarpy Counties formed nearly five years ago, nobody really said so, but the educational consortium of 11 school districts in the two counties was putting the phrase — which runs, in full: “It takes a village to raise a child” — into practical application.

“It does take a village,” said Lorraine Chang, chairwoman of the Learning Community Coordinating Council, an 18-member governing body representing the six achievement subcouncils which comprise the Learning Community.

“It’s sort of a hackneyed phrase, but we like to look at things holistically,” Chang continued. “The Learning Community is trying to bring everyone together to boost student achievement. But, at the same time, we realize the Learning Community isn’t the only entity that can do that. It takes the cooperation of all the districts and, when it comes down to it, the whole community itself.”

Coming up on the five-year anniversary of its creation, the Learning Community and its leadership say it’s taken time for the districts and the constituents in those districts to fully apprehend the consortium’s goals, but results are starting to take shape.

The Learning Community’s chief aim is to increase student achievement across the metro, with an emphasis on those pockets where students living in poverty struggle to get the same resources. That goal has been an especial bright spot.

Ted Stilwill, the Learning Community’s CEO, said — based on the directed focus the consortium was given by legislation and the mission statement it has adopted — there are reasons to see what’s happened lately as a resounding success.

“We have turned a corner in terms of the focus we now have,” Stilwill said. “If you look at the original legislation, there’s a pretty big list of things that the Learning Community is instructed to do. And it’s great to have that freedom, but it’s not very focused. In the last few years, we’ve managed to work on bringing that list into focus.”

Among the items on that 17-point list in the legislation governing the Learning Community are programs providing: computer labs, summer school and extended school-day programs, health services, nutritional services, services for new students, English classes for parents and literacy centers.

Stilwill said while all of the programs have their merits, it was necessary to sit down with some portion of the Learning Community’s constituency and determine what the most pressing needs were.

Through a series of meetings with Achievement Subcouncil 2 in North Omaha, Stilwill and other Learning Community leaders sat down with parents, educators and community leaders to do just that.

At the end of the meetings, Stilwill said the Learning Community came away with a greater sense of what their mission ought to be: achieving a much tighter academic focus from any program proposed by a district for Learning Community funding and finding a way to quantify those programs as having measurable success on boosting student achievement.

“What we found our focus to be was to be able to do that evaluation,” Stilwill said. “If a district alone has to fund the program, run the program and evaluate the program, they have to have a much smaller program, meaning they’re reaching fewer students and they won’t likely be able to get the feedback they want right away.”

Now, Stilwill said, the Learning Community is partnering with the University of Nebraska Medical Center’s Munroe Meyer Institute to develop baseline tests and evaluations.

Stilwill singled out two programs he said have enjoyed success as a result of the drawn-down focus in the last year: elementary literacy centers and family literacy.

The former program served 13,243 students across eight districts, 83 percent of whom were receiving free or reduced lunch. The number the Learning Community looks for is the effect size of a program, an equation that states a 0.4 factor of growth is satisfactory progress in a year.

Of those students living in that definition of poverty, the consortium saw a 0.56 effect size.

In the family literacy program, offered at the South Omaha Library and providing not only reading and English lessons but also parenting strategies and a primer on school interaction, there was a 1.06 factor in effect size. While that number was being applied to adults, Stilwill said there’s still plenty of room to be excited about how the program is connecting families to schools.

The family literacy program primarily served students and parents in the Omaha Public Schools, and another version of the program is being started in Bellevue, Stilwill said.

That’s the crux of Stilwill’s message: the district is still the prime mover for projects it wants to undertake. Some districts have participated more than others, but the money collected under the common property tax levy is intended to help any and all ships rise, as long as they can bring a workable plan to the Learning Community.

“These are programs that have good potential for districts to learn from,” Stilwill said. “The Learning Community, even with the common levy and the elementary (learning center) levy, was not intended to be the solution. We are to be used as a guide. These are programs we continue to improve upon and, if there are programs that are not successful, we will weed those out.”

That approach, he added, does beg the question of how more affluent districts can interact with the Learning Community.

But Stilwill said as much as there’s a perceived culture of have and have-not in the metro, poverty is on the rise in just about all 11 member districts.

Stilwill said the onus is on the district to find its needs, measure those needs against the 17-point legislative dictates and come to the Learning Community with a plan. From there, the Learning Community and the district partner to bring the project to fruition.

Chang said that process has been most successful in elementary-age interventions, where the common levy is being appropriated for the greatest effect.

“The ability to have an impact more and more focused on our elementary levy authority has been good,” she said. “We now have that money to do some things that can be helpful to all the districts.”

In the 2013-14 school year thus far, eight districts and eight community organizations have partnered with the Learning Community on six targeted projects.

The greatest level of participation is coming in extended learning programs, where the public schools in Bellevue, Ralston, Elkhorn, Springfield Platteview, Millard and Omaha have seen 2,164 students served in the interest of providing after-school and out-of-school academic enhancement programs, behavioral support and tutoring. The total amount allocated for the program is $870,988.45.

The second largest program in terms of participation are early childhood and the Jump Start pre-kindergarten programs, which involve Bellevue, Elkhorn, Omaha and Papillion-La Vista. A total of 1,806 students are served in those districts in a program that provides early supports for academic success.

While OPS is by far the biggest recipient of Learning Community allocations, with nearly $2.2 million, Bellevue, Elkhorn, Millard, Westside, Ralston, Papillion-La Vista and Springfield Platteview have all received some sort of grant from the Learning Community to assist with the implementation of one or more programs, usually aimed at increasing the potential for achievement among the districts’ students living in poverty or learning English as a second language.

The organizations partnering with the Learning Community and the district are also diverse and pointing the way toward community cooperation. Those organizations are OneWorld Community Health Centers, Lutheran Family Services, Catholic Charities, Girls Inc., Completely Kids, VOICES/Banister, EduCare and the Salvation Army.

In earlier interviews with area superintendents, most acknowledged the aims of the Learning Community are noble, well-executed and bearing fruit, especially for children living in poverty.

Stilwill said the Learning Community continues to learn what it can do for its member districts to serve as wide a population as possible, especially when it comes to the programs targeting literacy that are seeing the most success under Learning Community facilitation.

“As I said, we seriously turned a corner working with partners to come up with better solutions for kids in poverty,” he said. “I think most of us agree that, in terms of education, poverty is the biggest threat, and we are starting to get a handle on that achievement gap.”

By the same token, Stilwill said, the impact of poverty continues to grow.

“We’re not moving fast enough, and that’s dangerous to employment and that’s ultimately dangerous to our society,” he said. “But we understand it’s not enough just to say, ‘We have poverty here.’ It has to be demonstrated, it has to be measurable. If we’re going to run intensive care, we have to have well-implemented, evaluable programs.”

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