While Blaine County students soaked up the last week of summer break, their teachers were already in class Tuesday morning, receiving marching orders—and a touch of motivation—before the academic year begins in earnest on Aug. 19.
Employees of the Blaine County School District, including some 37 new hires, crowded the Community Campus in Hailey to hear Luis Cruz, Ph.D., an educational consultant and speaker specializing in school reform.
His main message: As the BCSD’s student body changes and the state standards by which they’re evaluated stiffen, its teachers and staff must be willing to change, too.
Faced with increasingly diverse demographics—including more Latino students, Spanish speakers and kids living in or near poverty—that change hasn’t come easily here. For evidence, consider the BCSD’s persistent “achievement gap” in profici-ency between white and Latino students, which Cruz referred to as an “opportunity gap.”
Last year’s Idaho Standards Achievement Test scores told a familiar story for the district. On balance, both white and Hispanic students scored higher than their peer groups statewide, but the gap between the two groups locally was larger, too. Closing that difference is a stated goal for the School District. In 2019, it remained higher than the state average in all but three testing areas.
Teachers, Cruz said, need to be willing to abandon the policies, practices, procedures and personal mindsets that they’ve been conditioned to since they were students themselves. Most were excellent students themselves, he said, and they tend to reproduce what worked for them. These tactics have been ingrained over decades—starting on the first day of kindergarten, even—and many teachers resist throwing them out.
But the demands of a global economy—not to mention new state content standards—require different approaches, he said. These days, students can’t just learn a few skills and enter the workforce. They need “to hit a home run” in the classroom to meet the demands of a modern job market. If test scores are an indication, many—in Blaine County, Idaho and the United States as a whole—don’t.
“It’s not because you don’t work hard,” Cruz told the staff. “It’s not because you don’t care. It’s because the system wasn’t designed for these kids. And, in order to change it, we need to embrace the uncomfortableness associated with changing it.
“The public-school system wasn’t created for everybody. It was made for whomever society deemed ‘everybody’ at that point in time. Now, all kids need to learn at a high level. ... They all need to hit home runs.”
That means different tactics for different students, Cruz said. Or, in the parlance of the School District’s mission statement, offering an “equity” of outcomes, not “equality” of resources. The goal there, according to Superintendent GwenCarol Holmes, is to get every student to Idaho’s math and literacy benchmarks, which have been raised to match federal standards outlined in the national Common Core curriculum.
“Equity” has been a key tenant of the district’s mission statement for several years. And, the shift in philosophy, plus the higher standards, have been part of what Holmes called the “perfect storm” of difficulties pacing the district during her tenure. Higher bars to clear, changing expectations and demographics and tighter purse strings have stressed the BCSD during her tenure, she said.
On Tuesday, though, Holmes offered an optimistic message.
“I think we’re coming out of that perfect storm,” she said.
Holmes cited upticks in both English and math proficiency among students who speak Spanish as their primarily language—in English, from 13 percent in 2018 to 22 percent in 2019, and in math from 28 percent to 38 percent—as evidence that the district is making positive strides. And, she said, it is on a sounder financial footing than at any point in the past four years.
“There are signs all around that we are educating all our students,” she said. “We believe that learning to standards is achievable, and we’re working towards it every day.
“We’re not there yet, but we have proven that we can do this.”