BY JACK HEIDEL
The writer is member of the Learning Community Coordinating Council.
The lead story in the Dec. 11 World-Herald,“Grades are in for the Learning Community,” discusses the Learning Community’s 2012 annual report, available at www.learningcommunityds.org.
The main focus of the newspaper story is open enrollment, which has had limited success toward increasing socioeconomic diversity in the 199 school buildings in the 11 Omaha-area school districts that make up the Learning Community.
It is important to keep in mind the overall purpose of the Learning Community, which is to address the academic achievement gap between students from low and middle-income families in the two-county metro area.
The extent of this gap is stunning (both statewide and in the Learning Community), as indicated by the chart above, which is extracted from the annual report.
In this data, free or reduced-price lunch is used as measure of low income. For simplicity, only the reading proficiency scores from the Nebraska Statewide Assessment are presented here. The data on NeSA writing and math proficiency tests show similar or even greater achievement gaps. Note that the reading proficiency gap is stable (although quite large) from third through sixth grade and then gets progressively greater in seventh, eighth and 11th grades.
The Learning Community Coordinating Council proceeds on the basis that the only effective way for schools to help overcome the dreadful academic impact of childhood poverty is to get kids started out on sound educational track at the earliest possible age.
The $4.8 million received by the Learning Community from one-cent property tax levy is spent almost entirely for innovative programs at neighborhood schools with high FRL levels, mostly in north and South Omaha. The Learning Community Center of South Omaha offers parenting education, navigator services and adult education to low income Hispanic-Latino families with elementary-age children.
The highly innovative strategy in north Omaha is to focus intensely on very young children and to work with community partners such as the Educare Center of Omaha, Building Bright Futures and Metropolitan Community College, as well as Omaha Public Schools, to develop effective programs that can then be scaled up and replicated by others.
The first elected group of Learning Community Coordinating Council members took office in January 2009 and had to create an entire structure and organization from scratch. Now completing its fourth full year of operation, there is five-member staff to implement the programs approved by the 18-member council.
Already in the 2012-13 academic year, there are 11,000 low income school children being served by its programs, in all 11 school districts. The framework is now in place for major gains to be achieved in the underlying mission to improve educational performance for children living in poverty.
Nebraskans should feel proud of supporting such promising educational initiative.