School districts across the country owe some students an “education debt.”

That’s the opinion of pedagogical theorist Gloria Ladson-Billings. In 2005 she told an American Educational Research Association conference that the American school system looked at one of its most intractable issues, the achievement gap, in the wrong way.

The gap describes the difference in outcomes between demographic groups in schools, often between white students and those of color or of lower socioeconomic status. Ladson-Billings, then the president of the association, told her colleagues that instead of thinking in an outcome-based way they needed to focus on the underlying issues that caused students to struggle, including socioeconomic status, language barriers and uneven funding.

Schools in Teton County have taken the concept to heart, striving to relate learning to students’ lives to help them graduate high school and prepare for postsecondary life.

“If all of our students don’t feel connected to school culturally, it doesn’t matter what you do, they won’t do well,” Jackson Hole High School Principal Scott Crisp said.

Achievement gaps exist across the country. For Teton County and Wyoming the most glaring one exists between white students and English language learners, kids who enter school with below-standard English skills.

Local efforts offer a glimpse into ways schools can repay that education debt.

Outpacing the state

Each year the Wyoming Department of Education publishes graduation rates through the four-year adjusted cohort model. The U.S. Department of Education started collecting graduation rates using the model in the 2010-11 school year.

The four-year graduation rate is the percentage of students in a cohort who finish in four years, considered to be on time. The state department also provides five- and six-year rates to reveal a fuller picture of how many kids graduated.

Graduation rates in Teton County outstrip the state average on a yearly basis, often by 10 to 15 percentage points. In 2018-19 Teton County graduated 94% of kids to the state’s 82.1%. That success carries over to pretty much all demographics, and for English language learners the difference from the state is particularly noticeable in some years (see graphic for more data).

The state education department categorizes data by reported race, as well as in other categories like homeless or ELL students. A majority of Teton County ELL students are native Spanish speakers, but all do not fit that description.

In only one year since adjusted cohort data has been collected was Teton County’s graduation rate for English language learners lower than the state’s, even though Teton County has a much higher proportion of ELL students. In 2019-20 the state had just 4% of ELL students, who can either be actively learning English or in a monitoring phase, meaning their English has improved. Teton County has 22% of its student body in the ELL program.

Additionally, in eight of those 10 years the district’s achievement gap was lower than the state’s.

Crucial interventions

Crisp said improvements in graduation rates for English language learners, which reduce the achievement gap, are based on several factors. One is a focus on educational interventions early in a student’s life.

“ELL supports begin at the K-5 level,” Crisp said. “As they enter the high school, if they have been in Teton County for several years we are a recipient of what is happening at the middle and elementary levels.”

Interventions might include extra reading or writing lessons, or more support on specific language skills. Wyoming’s educational model lays the groundwork for schools to allocate resources for such interventions, which can be costly.

The foundation block grant model ensures a relatively equal level of funding for all pupils by collecting property tax revenue from counties and redistributing it as necessary. Along with the fiscal flexibility inherent to the block grant program, that gives districts the ability to target such work.

“Because of the funding model, your local tax base doesn’t determine how much money you’re going to have for your school,” said Kari Eakin, policy director for the state education department.

Financial freedom to spend money on targeted programs has shown success in other states. Kansas raised its overall graduation rate by 6.6% between 2010 and 2018, and a wide variety of groups saw even larger gains.

Black and Latino students, as well as those on free and reduced lunch or in special education, saw a 10% increase in that time, Kansas Association of School Boards President Mark Tallman wrote in a report. He cited a program called America’s Graduates that targeted academic interventions for students at risk of not graduating.

In 2018 America’s Graduates was serving 3,500 students in Kansas, and it had a 98% graduation rate, but it cost $1,500 above the state’s average cost per student.

“This helps show why funding matters, especially in helping students who face special challenges due to poverty, disability, and other factors,” Tallman wrote. “Additional funding provides the resources to give both students and teachers more help in overcoming these challenges.”

Support breeds success

More money alone, however, is not the answer, as educators in Minnesota discovered. The Star-Tribune, Minneapolis’ main newspaper, reported in 2019 that the state had spent $5 billion over the previous decade to boost students’ “basic skills” in the hope it would decrease achievement gaps.

The state intended districts to spend the funding on a dozen strategies, but the Star-Tribune investigation found no school district maintained the proper documentation to track how the money was spent. During that decade Minnesota’s achievement gaps widened, so the basic skills program seemed to have little effect, and without documentation Minnesota was unable to pinpoint if any of the 12 strategies did show any tangible benefit.

For Teton County, interventions to boost skills like English language fluency are followed by a strategy that might seem counterintuitive. Six years ago, when the district had an achievement gap closer to the state’s, administrators increased graduation requirements, mandating more years of math.

“When you have a school with increased requirements, you run a tighter ship. There is less room for error for students falling through the cracks, for students repeating and making up classes,” Crisp said. “It makes you dive deeply into the immediate moment with the students.”

That increase came with another focus on academic and social interventions. More counselors and social workers were hired so students had the support needed to maintain the academic rigor, something that was possible under Wyoming’s block grant model.

As some staff have retired, particularly administrators, the district has left positions unfilled, opting to hire for further student support. Superintendent Gillian Chapman said that in recent years she has turned most curriculum development work to the principals so she didn’t need to rehire those positions in her district office.

That has let her hire an extra assistant principal at both Jackson Hole High School and Middle School, as well as keep nursing positions filled. She also added a social worker at the middle school and Summit Innovations School, and another counselor at the high school.

In total the model funds the district for six counselors and social workers, information coordinator Charlotte Reynolds said, but it has 15 total. They offer all types of student support, from academic to social-emotional, as do the school resource officers the district uses foundation block grant money to help pay.

“It far exceeds what the model says we should have,” Chapman said. “But those are good examples of within the block grant … we can make some local decisions.”

Promises aren’t guaranteed

Graduation rate data from those six years shows both the promise of that concept and its tenuousness. Seven years ago the achievement gap between white and ELL students was 24.1%. The next three years it was lower than 4%. It has crept back up in the past three, though the county still graduates more of its ELL students than the state as a whole.

Knowing the success of Teton County’s focus on both student development and rigor, does Crisp think Jackson Hole High School’s method of repaying its educational debt can be replicated around the state?

It’s complicated.

“We haven’t done a lot of sharing about it. In public speaking engagements, we’ve spoken about it,” he said. “But I would caution, because of the unique nature of Wyoming districts being so rural, it would be hard to pull it off because of staffing.”

Contact Tom Hallberg at 732-7079 or thallberg@jhnewsandguide.com.

Tom Hallberg covers a little bit of everything, from skiing to long-form feature stories. A Teton Valley, Idaho, transplant by way of Portland and Bend, Oregon, he spends his time outside work writing fiction, splitboarding and climbing.

(1) comment

Mark Witherman

I don't understand this story? What debt?

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