"If it hurts when you keep banging your head against the wall, stop doing it."
Unfortunately, this year's presentation was exactly like the previous eleven: RUSD's numbers are bad, bad, bad. Worst of the ten peer districts. Again.
"I hate to sound like a broken record, year after year," said Robert Henken, president of the Public Policy Forum as he presented the all-important "outcomes" figures comparing RUSD to peer districts, to a Wingspread room full of Racine leaders, educators and the president of Gateway Technical College and the chancellor of UW-Parkside.
- Here are some of RUSD's most recent outcomes:
- Racine is worst in attendance
- Worst in dropouts.
- Dead last in all reading and math WKCE scores, 3rd grade through 10th
- There's a huge achievement gap for both African-American and Hispanic students.
- Ditto a racial gap in high school graduation rates.
Carole Johnson, former president of Gateway and director of local and community programs for the Johnson Foundation, said near the end of the program, "We need a much greater sense of urgency. It feels sort of flat-line after 12 years, and that really troubles me. We can't wait another 12 years."
Various reasons were cited, with panelists agreed that poverty is the most powerful; 58% of Unified's students qualify for free and reduced price lunch. RUSD Board Chair Bill Van Atta insisted that poverty is "a community issue that's broader than just the schools." Supt. James Shaw cited some of the district's poverty figures:
- Residents living in poverty increased from 31.8% in 1999 to 58% in 2009.
- The adjusted gross income per tax return in Racine has increased by 15.8% over the past 10 years while state income per return has increased 43.6% in the same period.
Johnson cited "the pure, chronic, intense level of stress those kids are bringing to school every day." Poverty is passed from adults to children "who do not know how to deal with that stress. Poverty is not race; poverty is poverty," she said.
Johnson was particularly eloquent on this point, rejecting the notion that RUSD's minority students are the problem. Actually, "minority" is a misnomer here these days: Unified's white students are now the minority for the first time, making up 49.4% of enrollment. African-American students comprise 27%, followed by Hispanics, 21.6% and smaller numbers of Asians and Indians. "Poor does not mean minority," she insisted, adding that Unified officials are not using "a lot of poor kids" as an excuse, either.
Nobody was particularly surprised by the results, and some found a few reasons to be hopeful. Pete Knotek, president of the Racine Education Association, said the district "has recovered" from the 2006-2007 upper management change, when Supt. Tom Hicks was pushed out. Shaw said "there are signs of improvement...signs of growth." He cited positive results at Wadewitz Elementary School, and the work of the district's two magnet high schools, Walden III and the REAL School. Johnson said one of the district's problems is the size of its three comprehensive high schools. "They're too big." REAL and Walden work, she said, because the students are "really engaged with their teachers and each other."
Another problem, cited by Van Atta, is that "we have children in the district with above-average needs, but we have below-average resources." Shaw, former superintendent at Menomonee Falls, added, "Racine needs more money than Menomonee Falls kids." He noted that Madison spends more per student, mostly to provide smaller class sizes. Knotek added that the state's school funding process is "archaic, outmoded and doesn't meet the needs of kids."
Near the end of the 90-minute presentation, the four panelists were asked what they would do with an extra 5% of funding. Here's what they said:
Van Atta: Smaller class sizes.He summed up: "We have a real chance to make improvements. The community is coming together." The next steps, he said, are to improve teaching, complete collecting data on how students are doing and what is working, and "strategic management of our human resources."
Johnson: Programs to help kids catch up.
Knotek: Smaller class sizes, and "more robust professional development," newer forms of teaching.
Shaw: Agreed with Knotek, and said: "A great teacher in front of a small class is best; next best is a great teacher in front of a large class."
The complete report is online at the Public Policy Forum's website.