CHARLESTON -- Charleston R-1's less than stellar -- although improved -- state achievement test scores among its low-income and minority students have grabbed the attention of its entire community.
"It's important to open dialogue in the community as it relates to poverty-
stricken students not doing well -- whether it means talking about minority students or economically disadvantaged students," said Lester Gillespie, youth director of Susanna Wesley Family Learning Center. "We are taking a stand to improve our test scores and strengthen our school district."
To address the issue, the Charleston community this week is asking parents to talk to their children about the importance of the upcoming Missouri Assessment Program (MAP) test.
On Monday, the community began MAP test preparation week for parents and their children at the Bowden Center in Charleston. Each day from 6 to 7 p.m. school officials and community leaders have discussed topics like students being accountable for doing well on the test, parents helping their children prepare for the test, getting a good night's sleep and why the district needs students to perform well on the test.
Charleston NAACP President Arthur Cassell will conclude the weeklong event by speaking to tonight's attendees.
"These types of programs help all students in our district," Cassell said. "It's also important that the parents play a major role in making sure that students get a good night's rest and take the test serious."
The program is a collaboration between Charleston NAACP, Charleston Concerned Citizens, Opportunity Outreach Center, Charleston R-1 School District and Susanna Wesley Family Learning Center. Meals were also provided through funding from the state Department of Public Safety and Office of Juvenile Justice Department, Gillespie said.
The subject matter is very serious and preparation must start in the community as well as the school, Gillespie said. The objective of the week is to saturate the importance of doing well on the test by using local entities such as the churches, civic organizations, agencies, businesses and schools, he added.
"Our community is our No. 1 resource and the students are only going to respond accordingly to the support and encouragement in which they are given from our community," Gillespie said.
Parental feedback has been positive, Gillespie said.
"Parents are excited about being able to come to the table and now they understand what's at stake here," Gillespie said.
In 2005, for the third consecutive year, Hearnes Elementary in Charleston failed to make the state's goals in reading, despite its significant increase in scores.
Last year's state goals, known as adequate yearly progress or AYP, were 26.6 percent of students scoring proficient or higher in reading and 17.5 percent in math.
In addition to total student population making AYP, subgroups such as white students, black students and free and reduced/free lunch students, must also meet these goals for the district to make AYP.
For example, in reading, Hearnes Elementary's "total" subgroup jumped from 14. 9 to 21. 8 scoring in the top two levels in 2005. The black students subgroup jumped from 7.7 to 9.5, white students from 23.8 to 37.1 and free/
reduced lunch students from 9.5 to 13.8.
However, in math, scores dramatically increased in all subgroups and made AYP. The school total score rose from 18.8 in 2004 to 37.9 in 2005. The black students subgroup went from 5 to 30, white students 39 to 48.6 and free and reduced lunch from 13.4 to 30.2.
School officials credit last year's increase in scores to Hearnes Elementary completely revising its curriculum and tying it to the state's grade level expectations. Plus teachers prepare all year for the MAP test.
Only Title I schools (those schools that receive federal money for poor children) can be punished for not meeting the state's benchmarks. Schools, such as Hearnes Elementary, that don't make AYP in the same subject for two consecutive years are designated by the state as needing improvement, but because Charleston made enough progress in 2005, it wasn't penalized financially.
And this year is just as important.
"For the elementary, especially, it's such a scare financially," said Hearnes Elementary Principal Becky Stewart. "If we don't keep Title I funding, that's a big problem."
Stewart said the district appreciates what the community is doing.
"I think it's an issue where they really want to see their community improve," Stewart said. "I don't think they like seeing in the paper that we're not making AYP. Everybody is starting to come together."
Parental involvement is also extremely important to the success of student performance, Stewart noted.
"If parents aren't involved, then the children don't get a sense of urgency that it's important," Stewart said. "Parents are the first teachers, and kids look up to them."
Missouri schools can begin MAP testing Monday. Charleston R-1 will begin testing throughout the district Tuesday and will continue until April 10.
But Charleston isn't alone in fighting the achievement gap. Schools across the state and region are facing similar challenges. Gillespie said he hopes every community will take note of their students' performances on the MAP test.
"Our community wants to be a trail blazer by addressing the MAP test issue and narrowing the gap between underachieved students and students that are achieving. With the partnership of the school district, community members, parents and students, we should see a slight increase in MAP test scores," Gillespie predicted.
And Charleston residents can no longer sit back, Gillespie said.
"In Charleston, our school district is our biggest industry, and we've got to keep it going," Gillespie said. "If it fails, we all fail."