Superior School District tackles achievement gaps

DPI flags, graduation rates steer work.

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The Superior School Board discussed concerns over graduation rates and data that indicates a disproportionate number of Black, Hispanic and multiracial students are being identified with specific disabilities during its committee of the whole meeting July 6.

“We felt like it was really important to have a transparent look at some really significant data in our district and then obviously talk about what work we’re doing to address it,” said Kate Tesch, director of continuous improvement and assessment.

Students of color and students with disabilities are two student groups that are experiencing the greatest achievement gaps in the district at this time, she said.

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The special education data was flagged by the Wisconsin Department of Instruction. Of concern were the following:

  • The Superior School District is over-identifying multiracial students with emotional behavioral disabilities compared to white students.

  • The district is over-identifying students who are Black and Hispanic with specific learning disabilities.

  • The DPI noted discipline discrepancies.

“They did want us to be aware that our Black students on IEPs (Individualized Education Pans) were suspended greater than 10 days out of school at a much greater rate than the state average,” Tesch said.
Principals have been looking into where and why these identifications are happening over the past few weeks, District Administrator Amy Starzecki said. Typically, these identifications are made in third grade and up, according to Tesch.

“I think we’re asking really great questions and we’re digging into data at a level that we maybe haven’t before, which is really positive,” Tesch said.

A continuous improvement plan, due in October, is being developed to focus on these categories, Tesch said, and the district is required to spend 15% of its special education funding budget on closing these gaps. Addressing the root cause of the disproportionalities flagged by DPI could make a positive impact for all.

“The interventions or the solutions will affect all students,” Starzecki said.

Board members appreciated the information, and the fact that it was addressed at the public meeting. Equity work can be eye-opening, said Christina Kintop, board vice president.

“You can have excellent staff, but if you don’t know what you don’t know and you don’t dig deep in and kind of rip the Band-Aid off and really address these things, you know, I think you’re just going to keep kicking that can down the road,” she said. “One of the notes I made was just how impressed I am with the board, the administration and this district with not sweeping this under the rug, being super-super transparent because the only way we’re going to tackle these inequities is by taking them head on."

Graduation rates

Another concern administrators brought to the board involved graduation data. The percentage of students identified with a disability who graduated has been on a downward trajectory since the 2017-2018 school year. In the 2019-2020 school year, only 62.1% of students with a disability in the district graduated, according to the data presented, lower than the statewide graduation rate of 71.2% for students with a disability.


“The 2019-2020 data is concerning,” Starzecki said. “That if you have an IEP, chances are one-in-three you will not graduate on time or graduate.”

Superior’s graduation rate for all students was 84.3% in the 2019-2020 school year, less than the statewide average of 90.6%. The district’s graduation rate was the 15th lowest in the state, according to a ranking of 331 districts in Wisconsin that was presented to the board. Even districts with roughly the same number of students of similar socio-economic status, race and ethnicity breakdowns were “massively outperforming” Superior in terms of graduation rates, Tesch said.

“I think this report is significant in what we need to do and how much effort we need to pay to this data and that we as a district need to come together to fight for all kids graduating college and career ready from our school district,” she said.

The graduation numbers are out of sync with the district's test scores, Tesch said. Superior students score in roughly the 40th percentile statewide in test scores, while it's in the bottom couple percentage points for graduation rates.

"So our kids are achieving at a higher level than they’re graduating, not because they aren’t able to learn and demonstrate their learning. There are other things that are obviously preventing them from earning the credits,” Tesch said.

Failure data — the number of students in each grade who have at least one F — is significant, she said, and could be the number one contributor.

"We already have 49 students (out of 320) at the end of ninth grade that are off track for graduation,” Starzecki said.

Board member Mike Meyer said programs such as Building Assets, Reducing Risks (BARR), which was implemented at Superior High School last year, could help raise graduation rates by connecting students and teachers.


"It all comes down to relationships," Meyer said.

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The board also moved an update to the handbook and student code of conduct to its Monday, July 12, meeting. The updated code would be consistent district-wide, Starzecki said, and curtail many of the exclusionary practices currently on the books. Exclusionary practices are disciplinary actions that remove students from the classroom, ranging from a trip to the principal's office to out of school suspension or expulsion.

"Our current handbook has, like l said, a culture of this being the typical way of addressing any sort of misbehavior that our students might display," Starzecki said. "We know that much of the removal from the classroom can come from more subjective behavior — disrespect, insubordination — and it can be applied differently across staff and schools."

Exclusionary practices have a direct impact on student achievement, because they cause students to miss instruction.

"We know when kids aren't in the classroom they're not learning, and we need to minimize the amount of time they're out of the classroom," Starzecki said.

Visit the district board website to view archived board meetings.

Maria Lockwood covers news in Douglas County, Wisconsin, for the Superior Telegram.
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