Minding the achievement gap

A Concordia University professor helps unify Wisconsin schools to address disparities in academic achievement

A Milwaukee-area high school student arrives at Concordia University Wisconsin for last summer's African American Male Initiative Summer Institute.

Sixteen-year-old Zoe McDowell has a bright future ahead of him. The Milwaukee-area native maintains a respectable GPA, is a standout track and football athlete at Shorewood High School, and plays an active role in mentoring young black students, like himself, through a club he helped start at his school.

Now in his junior year, McDowell has his sights set on some of the top post-secondary mechanical engineering programs in the nation. He also has aspirations to play football at the collegiate level. Either way, he’s college-bound. There’s never been a doubt in his mind about it.

Unfortunately, the same can’t be said for most teenagers in McDowell’s demographic. For decades, reports have surfaced about the abysmal achievement gap that exists between black and white students in Wisconsin schools. Today, multiple news sources will confirm that Wisconsin ranks worst in the nation when it comes to the difference between how well black and white students perform on national benchmark tests, and the difference between black and white student graduation rates.

“It’s definitely an issue, and it’s one that’s not easy to fix,” says Dr. Elliott Moeser, associate professor of education at Concordia. “It’s going to require continual cooperation among school districts, parents, legislators, and the like, and it’s going to require us to potentially fail. But if we don’t begin to take an honest look at the concern, we’re going to be doomed to continue to live with it.”

For the past several years, Moeser has played an integral role in fostering collaboration among Wisconsin schools in an effort to bring about change. He serves as executive director of the Closing the Achievement Gap Consortium (CAGC), which aims to embrace and change school practices, instruction, and methodologies that perpetuate achievement gaps.

Dr. Elliott Moeser (right) attends a 2017 Equity Institute at Homestead High School with Dr. Monica Kelsey-Brown, the chair of the new AAFI committee.

Dr. Demond Means, the former superintendent of Mequon-Thiensville schools, along with Glendale-River Hills School District Superintendent Larry Smalley, Brown Deer School District Superintendent Dr. Deb Kerr, and Wauwatosa School District Superintendent Dr. Phil Ertl, founded the consortium in 2012. The Mequon-Thiensville School District continues to play an integral role, with Superintendent Matthew Joynt leading multiple of the consortium’s larger annual efforts.

Today, the consortium has expanded to 27 public, private, parochial, voucher, and choice schools and school systems throughout Wisconsin. Concordia is the CAGC’s only higher education partner.

The group works to address Wisconsin’s achievement gap issue in a number of ways. One of the more notable efforts is the CAGC’s African American Male Initiative (AAMI) Summer Institute, a summertime initiative that encourages young African American men to succeed with the intent of pursuing higher education. During the four-day event, students stay overnight in CUW dorms, network with dozens of other black teens and young adult mentors, hear addresses from prominent and successful black men in the community, and participate in a variety of goal-setting and personal development exercises.

In its inaugural year three summers ago, AAMI drew a modest 37 students, including Zoe McDowell. Last year, more than 150 youth attended.

“I actually met some of my long-term friends at that camp,” McDowell says. “To be successful, you have to have a good circle, and you have to have people who are going to empower you, and that’s what I feel I gained through the AAMI.”

In June, CAGC hosted its first African American Female Initiative. The event is made possible by a gift from the Waukesha County Community Foundation, who learned of the success of AAMI last summer and wanted to replicate it with young women.

While there is more work to be done on the achievement gap front, Moeser says he’s thrilled with the progress that’s being made, and he’s taking advantage of opportunities to champion the group’s efforts. Recently, he was invited to present at the 2018 American Association of School Administrators in Nashville, Tennessee, which drew approximately 5,000 educators.

“We determined that we could do more work together than apart as far as closing the achievement gap,” Moeser says. “We are a group of action. This is an example of doing something that is positive, something that will change the lives of students.”

The Consortium in Action

The Closing the Achievement Gap Consortium, or CAGC, aims to embrace and change, with all deliberate speed, school practices, instructional methodology, and school structures that perptuate achievement and/or opportunity gaps in Wisconsin schools. Consortium leaders do this in a number of ways:

African American Male Initiative

The AAMI is a year-round mentorship program for young African American men. One of the main efforts of the program is the annual Summer Institute, where schools nominate young men of color to attend a four-day, overnight learning and personal growth event on Concordia’s campus. At the summer institutes, attendees: learn to set goals for themselves; meet with successful African American executives in the area; and connect with peers and mentors who will help them achieve success.

African American Female Initiative

New in 2018, the African American Female Initiative mimics the AAMI model, but invites young African American females from member CAGC schools to participate. The inaugural AAFI Summer Institute will be held June 26-29.

Equity Institutes

The CAGC has partnered with Integrated Comprehensive Systems 4 Equity to offer its partner schools summertime training that will allow them to begin to tackle the achievement gap within their schools. Last summer, the interactive, intensive, three-day institutes had hundreds of area teachers poring over school data and wrestling with tough questions in order to put research-driven strategies into practice.

Source: Globe Newswire/Concordia University Wisconsin

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