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Our view: Fixing school inequities hits critical moment

The unfair differences in educational opportunities and learning experiences for students in eastern-Duluth schools versus western-Duluth schools are well-known.

Classrooms are more crowded at East High, which has 1,515 students compared to Denfeld High's 950. But because there are more students at East, more courses are offered, including college-level and college-prep courses Denfeld students can't as easily access.

In addition, Denfeld students are poorer (more than 55 percent qualify for free or reduced lunches compared to less than 16.8 percent at East), struggle more to succeed (26 percent have Individualized Educational Plans because of a challenge compared to just 9 percent at East who have IEPs), and don't graduate as often (Denfeld has a 76 percent graduation rate compared to East's 95 percent).

How we got to this troubling level of inequity isn't nearly as important as what we're doing about it and what we're going to be doing about it — as a community.

The district, especially teachers and staff at Denfeld, long have been digging into the issue and brainstorming solutions. The administration and School Board discussed and debated east-west at last week's School Board meeting.

But a grassroots group of parents and district employees which took up the cause in December may have the best chance of engaging our community and finally getting at real solutions. About 20 of them, they call their effort the Community-Based School Equity Initiative. They have a public meeting planned Tuesday at which they'll present some information but, more, will gather input from the community.

It's a valuable moment for all of us to make our voices heard on an issue that impacts the very future of our city and our coming generations of Duluthians.

"It's complex, and I think the district could do a better job of attending to this issue," the group's Kevin Skwira-Brown, who has two kids at Denfeld, said in an interview last week with the News Tribune editorial board and a newsroom reporter. "It's really clear both from the public data that has been shared in the newspaper as well as the experiences of teachers, counselors, and administrators that the needs of a lot of children in our system aren't being sufficiently met. ... It isn't a matter of malice (on the district's part). It's a matter of trying to prioritize how to spend the public dollars that (district officials have been) given to do their work."

After Tuesday's meeting, the group will invite the public to continue to share stories and ideas online. Information will be crunched and shared at another public meeting, scheduled now for April 13. The group then plans to report to the School Board, with recommendations, on April 18.

The timeline is aggressive, but it needs to be if needed strategies and changes can be launched as soon as next school year.

"We're hemorrhaging. We need to stop the bleeding now," Skwira-Brown said. "Let's figure out what can be done for next school year to start to turn the ship. ... It's good to do the long-term planning, but we also have to get stuff on the ground. And, fundamentally, we have to change the way we think about our two (high) schools."

The group has a few ideas already, borrowed from teachers and staff at Denfeld.

They include designating Denfeld to receive federal Title 1 funding that goes to schools with high populations of students from lower-income families. The Duluth district now distributes this funding to its elementary and middle schools. While strong arguments can be made for investing when students are younger, the distribution of Title 1 money in Duluth is at least worth a conversation.

"Sometimes the argument is we don't want to take from other schools," Skwira-Brown said. "Well, we already are distributing our resources. So let's not pretend that the way it is right now is automatically the right way."

Ideas also include adding a seventh hour to the school day at Denfeld — and not at East — to help attract more students to the West Duluth high school. Member Alanna Oswald suggested this at last week's School Board meeting.

The district could look at changes to its transfer policy, too, to stem what Skwira-Brown's group found was a flow of special-education students to Denfeld.

Staff could be trained on the best practices of schools with similar demographics elsewhere and to better recognize and help students coping with issues outside the classroom — things like homelessness, domestic violence, and drug abuse by family members — to give them a better chance of succeeding in the classroom.

In addition, how about expanding busing to increase the chances of kids living within two miles of school, who now have to walk, making it to school, especially on colder days? And how about a reexamination of the geographic boundaries that largely determine Denfeld's and East's student populations? Back during the Red Plan, a more north-south division was considered that would have resulted in similar student populations and demographics. Skwira-Brown's group feels it's worth another look.

"This is the start of our data-gathering period. We're not coming in (to Tuesday's public meeting) saying we have the answers," Skwira-Brown said. "We're hoping that with the community and some focused attention we might be able to come up with some creative ideas."

Educational inequities east-versus-west in Duluth are as complex and well known as they will be difficult to tackle and fix. The Community-Based School Equity Initiative can be commended for focusing attention in an all-of-us-in-this-together, grassroots way. Its solutions can be our solutions if we participate and own them.

That can start Tuesday and continue into April. It's a short-term commitment of our time that as many of us as possible need to make for the long-term dividends that can result.

GET INVOLVED

What: Public meeting on solving educational inequities between eastern Duluth and western Duluth and specifically Duluth’s Denfeld and East high schools

When: 7 p.m. Tuesday

Where: The media center at Denfeld

Host: A grassroots group of parents and district employees responsible for the Community-Based School Equity Initiative

Online: More about the initiative can be found at facebook.com/duluthequity

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