Raising Student Proficiency

December 8, 2012
Author: John Milliken | The Salt Lake Tribune | Opinion

The Utah State Office of Education on Nov. 30 unveiled a new system of school accountability, effectively replacing No Child Left Behind.

Each school is given a score based on student proficiency in core subjects and growth in proficiency during the year. Schools in the bottom 15 percent have been identified as Priority and Focus schools and must conduct an appraisal and implement a revised plan to improve student proficiency.

United Way of Salt Lake shares the view that a clear focus on student achievement and school accountability is critical. We also recognize that school performance is influenced by many factors over which schools have little control.

In other words, Focus and Priority schools represent opportunities to identify and remove the significant barriers that impact student success — poverty, crime, low levels of education, lack of access to health care, and poor health, to name just a few.

Seen through this lens, the state’s new system allows us all to better understand and address these challenges, and presents an opportunity for the community as a whole to rally around Priority and Focus schools and help develop long-term solutions for our children.

For the past several years, UWSL has worked with many Title 1 schools (those with high percentages of students living in poverty) to mobilize and align people and resources to support student success. We are inspired by the dedicated teachers and courageous principals who show up every day to work with children who face overwhelming challenges.

With the support of visionary superintendents, teachers, mayors, business leaders, philanthropists and nonprofit organizations, we have formed Promise Partnerships in several communities that are committed to helping every child succeed in school — and we all share accountability for that goal.

There are still many challenges to overcome, but these schools and neighborhoods are beginning to show encouraging progress.

The City of South Salt Lake was recently named one of the "100 Best Communities for Young People" by America’s Promise Alliance. It was the only city in Utah to receive such recognition for its multi-faceted approach to community involvement and its partnership with Granite School District, United Way and others to ensure student success.

Another public/private collaboration is focused on assuring that every child enters kindergarten ready to learn. Initial results from this high-quality preschool initiative have shown significant increases in school readiness, a closing of the achievement gap by third grade for low-income students, and the avoidance of more than $1 million in higher-cost remediation services.

An elementary school has seen a 33 percent decline in the number of students moving to new schools before finishing the year – allowing teachers and students to focus on learning. The results are inspiring: The percentage of students meeting "benchmark" for reading has increased by 36 percent.

Another school has dramatically changed its culture to prepare and inspire students to complete college — implementing a nationally recognized college readiness program called AVID, for Advancement Via Individual Determination, and achieving the unique honor of being the only AVID demonstration school in the state.

In our experience, teachers, principals and district leaders are up to the task. What is needed is a commitment from the rest of us to work in partnership with them to remove barriers so that every child, even in the toughest neighborhoods, has the same opportunity to succeed in school and in life.

This collective impact approach transforms lives and communities. Together, we can create real, lasting change.


John Milliken
John Milliken is the chair of the Collective Impact Council of United Way of Salt Lake. His column was written on behalf of the UWSL’s board of directors.


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