Special Report: Cradle to Career
Columbia's effort to close achievement gap in schools
43 percent is the number of students who qualify for free or reduced lunches at the Columbia Public School District.
36 percent is the score those students, as a whole, received on state tests last year compared to an 82 percent by the rest of the student body.
CPSD superintendent Chris Belcher says the two numbers correlate, it's not a coincidence. You can find this achievement gap in schools, big and small, all across the nation.
It's a gap often created before a child even steps foot in a school. It's a gap school officials say will eventually effect the community's economic stability.
And with Missouri ranking 50th out of states for early education funding, Belcher expects no new money coming in, so, the school district is trying a new solution to close this gap, it's called Cradle to Career.
"What the achievement gap means," says Philip Peters, Cradle to Career's project director, " in a practical sense is we have a large group of children, principally low income children, whose chance of living the American dream is far less than we'd like to think it is. .35"
Educators, however, know the reality. They see it every day in the classroom, every year in state test scores and it's growing at an alarming rate.
"Columbia", says Superintendent Belcher, "in about fifteen years has gone from about 27 percent that qualify for free and reduced lunches to 43 percent his year."
If the rate continues, another fifteen years would mean nearly two thirds of students needing food assistance and likely falling into the achievement gap hole which education leaders describe as hard to climb out of. "1 in 10 students who is not a proficient reader," says Peters, "at third grade will ever become a sufficient reader."
At just 8 or 9 years old, a path is set, the American dream squashed.
But not without a fight.
Columbia public school district leaders, the United Way and about a dozen agencies and businesses in columbia are now implementing a very young, but promising program called Cradle to Career , a community driven answer.
"The most successful stories," Belchers says, "that deal with achievement gap are community initiatives."
Cradle to Career is now standing on it's own after being under the school district's umbrella for the last five years.
This is how it works: any agency; a food bank, after school program, community center or businesses like daycares, a mechanic shop even banks wanting to join must also be willing to share data.
"They can simply come and say, we want to be part of this group," says Belcher. "We want to get the measures, but we need some help."
As Peters puts it, a lot of groups and agencies hoping to make a difference have very little idea if what they're doing really works. Belcher agrees, "do you think program x is successful? well kids go to it, they like it, etc, that doesn't mean its successful." The agencies may also not realize the data they have to offer.
Data is a big part of Cradle to Career. In fact, the United Way and the program will share a data analyst who will go into a participating agency and help them identify the data that could prove beneficial to the closing the achievement gap.
An example...two agencies help high school students get into college, but one had better outcomes.
"The agencies participating got together to compare their practices," says Peters, "and found the agencies doing face to face assistance with completing the complicate financial aid form had much better enrollment numbers."
In this case, the data was the practices and college enrollment numbers, but it could be anything from a mentor's habits and his student's school behavior results or reading grades or a privately own daycare making sure toddlers take naps and read at least twice a day.
Once Cradle to Career finds a practice proven to work, it will pass that finding on to all other agencies participating or not.
The hope is once they identify what will move those achievement markers, they can help agencies implementing them find funding because cradle to career is not a funding source.
"Well we don't have new money to give out," says Peters, "our goal is to do more with what we have." And that's where businesses and more specifically CEO's can help the agencies grow the working programs.
"As the networks form," says Peters, "business that have already done quality improvement, performance management on their own enterprises, would be willing to spend some time coaching our community agencies."
"We can't do this if you send a director or somebody to sort of show you're quazi commitment to it," stresses Belcher. "We have to say, we ned the big players in the community to come forward."
If Cradle to Career doesn't work, leaders fear a more polarized economy for Columbia with a growing number in poverty.
"It is concentrated, sadly, 0 to 5, the youngest children," says Peters. "So it's going to become a larger problem for the schools."
Cradle to Career officially kicks off in January with a community coalition group willing to be the program's pilot for data collection and sharing. That will later grow into action networks pulling in agencies willing to participate.
As for the data, two areas with the lowest research, so far, are for ages zero to pre-K, the very influential time frame in a student's life that could help them avoid the achievement gap and agencies who track graduates tend to only go 180 days past the graduation date. So if a student dropped out of college after or during freshman year, its not being followed.
Cradle to Career is part of the Strive Network. It was started in Ohio. For more information on Columbia's Cradle to Career reach out to Philip Peters, Program Director either at email@example.com or 573-882-8274.
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