Achievement gap is focus for new Janesville school

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Frank Schultz
Sunday, November 24, 2013

JANESVILLE—The main task of Janesville's new high school would be one of the toughest known to educators: narrowing the achievement gap.

The gap between black, Hispanic and poor students and their peers has long been present in Janesville, as it has in most school districts nationwide.

Janesville officials who are developing plans for Rock University High School hope to recruit students who are not doing well in traditional high schools, even though they are academically talented.

“We certainly will be talking to kids that we're missing in the comprehensive high schools. And we know we're missing kids,” Superintendent Karen Schulte told a school board committee last week.

Relatively small numbers of poor and minority students enroll in higher-level courses that would prepare them for college, officials said. This is true even though the district has been working with its procedures and counselors to “look beyond color,” Schulte told the board's buildings and grounds/finance committee.

“We know these students are often overlooked in our comprehensive high schools and/or do not take advantage of the opportunities afforded to their white or higher socio-economic counterparts,” according to a memo from the Rock University High School Visioning Committee to Schulte.

Poverty has been shown to affect school performance, the memo says, but academic resources and curriculum are an even stronger predictor of student success.

About half of the district's black and Hispanic students took the ACT college-readiness test last school year, according to data presented to the committee, while 60 percent of white students did.

ACT results showed 21 percent of black test-takers were college-ready in English, compared with 42 percent of Hispanic students and 72 percent of white students. Results were similar in math, reading and science.

State test scores also confirm the learning gap.

Officials hope a smaller school with more one-on-one attention and alternative techniques will help.

The school board will consider a vote on the school's bylaws when it meets Tuesday.

The school is scheduled to open next fall with 40 to 60 students, probably on the campus of UW-Rock County on Janesville's south side.

The school would open with 2.5 full time-equivalent teachers, according to the planning team's memo.

The school would use a variety of alternative instructional methods, including hands-on projects that students would choose, putting learning into real-world contexts, use of digital technologies for on time/anytime accessibility, one-to-one attention and partial language immersion in Spanish, said Jane Thompson, a teacher who is on the planning committee.

The school also would accept students from other school districts through the state's open-enrollment process, but local students would get first choice for openings.

The learning environment would be more like a university than a high school, and UW-Rock instructors would visit classrooms and work with students, Thompson said.

Officials hope that housing the high school on a college campus will improve the high school students' “academic focus,” said Rich Gruber, a member of the planning team.

School officials are still in discussions with UW-Rock to work out an arrangement for using campus facilities.

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