‘Racially identifiable’ Sky Oaks crafts improvement plan

As District 191 officials begin to consider boundary changes to address enrollment inequities, one school is being forced to look at new strategies to integrate its heavily minority student body.

The school is Sky Oaks Elementary in Burnsville, where the percentage of students receiving free or subsidized meals is 77 percent, the highest in the district.

A school committee is considering steps that could include joining the student bodies of Sky Oaks and nearby Gideon Pond Elementary, whose free-and-reduced student population is only 46 percent, below the district average of 50 percent.

Under such a plan, students in grades kindergarten through three would attend one of the schools, and fourth- through sixth-graders would attend the other.

Numerous other ideas abound in a proposed three-year plan for improving student achievement and providing “integrative experiences” for students at Sky Oaks and other district elementary schools.

The review is prompted by Sky Oaks’ status under state law as a “racially identifiable” school with a  minority population at least 20 percent higher than the entire district’s for the same grade levels.

Of Sky Oaks’ 633 students, 221 are black (including the school’s large Somali population), 215 are Hispanic, 174 are white, 17 are Asian and six are American Indian.

“I think it’s wonderful that my kids attend a wonderfully diverse school,”  Abigail Alt, the Parent-Teacher Organization secretary and a member of the school committee, said in an interview. “They’re learning about how different families do things differently, and I think that’s something that should be celebrated.

“I can’t speak for other parents. But I know in conversations there are some parents who are concerned about the changes” in the school’s makeup.

Her chief goal is to give support to the teachers, whom she said shouldn’t have to double as social workers for the needier students.

“The teachers are wonderful. They’re teaching their hearts out,” Alt said. “They just need more support and a little bit of change at Sky Oaks to be as effective as they can be.”

The two-school arrangement would “broaden the mix” of students and make it logistically easier to reach larger numbers in appropriate grade groupings for both academic intervention and enrichment, Alt said.

Sky Oaks teachers also like the two-school plan and the flexibilities it would offer for group lessons, David Bernard, district instruction director, told the School Board at a Feb. 7 workshop.

Committee recommendations include an early school start time and additional transportation to allow for after-school enrichment activities.

Other recommendations focus on improved instruction, professional development and engaging hard-to-reach families in their children’s education.

Some new programs are envisioned, such as AVID, a college- and career-readiness program.

Officials said the school must connect more with parents through programs such as C-PAS (Connecting Parents and Schools). Sky Oaks has a Latino cultural liaison but not a Somali liaison, Bernard said. A school social worker is a possibility.

The school had limited success in involving minority parents in the planning, according to Bernard. Language and cultural barriers often impede full parental involvement in students’ education, he said.

Board Member Paula Teiken told of one Somali father who said his school experience in his homeland was being dropped off by parents who had never attended school themselves.

“That’s kind of where the expectation is for many Somali families,” she said.

Board Member Ron Hill questioned whether the plan, which he said includes a number of programs already under way in the district, does enough to shake up the traditional school culture and produce real results for underachieving kids.

For many of the needy families, “The issue is beyond the classroom,” Hill said.

“It may be true that it’s beyond the classroom, but this is our opportunity to address it at a very primal level,” Teiken said.

The board is scheduled to vote on the plan – and its budget – on March 7, after which it would be submitted to the state Department of Education. The department doesn’t give formal approval, Bernard said.