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Big boost from state targets Duluth graduation rates

To help combat low graduation and higher dropout rates for black and Native American students with disabilities, the state education department has chosen the Duluth school district for a large five-year grant.

The district was picked along with the Minneapolis, St. Paul and Osseo school districts for their high concentrations of black and Native American students with disabilities, and some of the state's lowest graduation rates for those groups. Duluth was also chosen to include a district outside of the metro area, and because of its commitment to improve, state education officials said.

Each district is expected to annually receive $160,000, beginning in 2016. The money comes from a federal grant given to nine states to improve personnel training systems to help kids with disabilities.

"When we looked across the state at districts that have lower graduation rates and high concentrations of those two student groups, those four districts bubbled to the surface," said Carolyn Cherry, a data manager for the state education department's special education staff.

The 2014 four-year graduation cohort in Duluth included 19 Native American students and 21 black students who received special education services. Graduation rates for these two groups aren't public because the numbers are too small to report, according to the Minnesota Department of Education. A goal is to improve the six-year graduation rates of these groups. Separately, black students that year had a 46 percent graduation rate; Native American students 49 percent; and special education students 45 percent.

The grant will pay to train staff to better understand and engage the designated student groups, and the work is meant to involve the Native American and black communities. In Duluth, training will begin with Denfeld High School and the Alternative Learning Center.

When the state education department interviewed a small group of Duluth students from the targeted populations last spring, the consensus was that traditional "teachers do not provide the needed instructional support to students of color with disabilities in order for them to succeed academically," according to a summary report of focus groups.

The report also said students indicated the lack of engagement was a result of "teachers not adequately trained to work with minority students with disabilities and teachers having low expectations of this student population."

When students are engaged, the report said, it's when a case manager or special education staff "personally cares about a student and who reaches out to the parents."

Students said that schools and staff need to be more culturally understanding, and that culturally relevant resource rooms, like the American Indian education room, were valuable.

A focus group was also held for Duluth administrators. Ways the district needed to change to improve graduation rates for those groups include a "systemic overhaul," and support from the state education department. Some administrators said not all educators in the district saw work on increasing those groups' graduation rate as their responsibility, believing it falls to specialists, cultural liaisons and special education staff, the summary report says.

The state education department will work with educators in Duluth on their efforts, Cherry said.

One intervention the district might use is the University of Minnesota's Check and Connect model that works to increase student engagement, said Ron Lake, the district's climate coordinator. Mentors would monitor students' behavior referrals, absences, grades and tardies, and help students solve problems and build skills, and develop a sense of belonging to their school. They would also act as a liaison between home and school, working with families.

The grant is important, Lake said, because the district's goal of high achievement for all really means everyone.

"If we keep doing the same thing, we will get the same results," he said.

What's learned through these four sites can help other districts in the state, said Loraine Jensen, an education specialist with the state education department and coordinator of the grant.

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