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Small town schools have big city problems: study

--- Race, social status may play a role in achievement

Kayla Bunge and Mike Heine/The Week

Donna Lenz Wright/The Week

(Published Dec. 3, 2007, 2:39 p.m.)

The school districts of Milwaukee, Racine and Kenosha aren't alone when it comes to below average test scores and low graduation rates.

The problems that plague big city schools are starting to be felt in smaller districts, including those in Walworth County, according to a study by the Public Policy Forum, a non-partisan, non-profit think tank based in Milwaukee.

The study compared 50 school districts in Milwaukee, Kenosha, Racine, Ozaukee, Washington, Waukesha and Walworth counties, lumping elementary feeder schools in with their high school districts.

Four Walworth County school districts were in the bottom 10 in graduation rates, and three were in the bottom six when it came to average reading and math scores, according to the study.

"Typically, we find Milwaukee, Racine and Kenosha (city schools) have the worst performance and have the lowest attendance rates and low graduation rates," said Anneliese Dickman, research director for the Forum. "We've always focused on those cities. This year we noticed smaller cities are starting to have the same kind of performance issues."

Districts that faired worse in Walworth County tended to have higher populations of minority students and more low-income students, as indicated by students receiving free or reduced lunches.

Delavan-Darien, the districts that feed into Badger High School in Lake Geneva and Whitewater were all in the top 10 as far as poverty rates. The three also had the highest percentages of minority students, Delavan-Darien being the highest with 39.5 percent, fourth-most in the region.

Diversity "brings challenges, but it can also bring some good things," such as exposing students to different lifestyles, said Wendy Overturf, Delavan-Darien School District administrator.

There is a relationship between poverty and test scores, "but it's not a blaming thing," she said. "We don't want to blame anything--the achievement gap--on the people. It's the circumstances around them."

"Sometimes the culture that they're in just doesn't foster a culture of engaged learning," said Steve Carlson, Delavan-Darien School Board president.

Students and parents in poverty may be focused more on meeting life's basic needs rather than success in school, Overturf said.

A test may be translated to Spanish, but a minority student who isn't proficient in English may not understand the subject when a class is taught in English, she added.

The study's numbers may be alarming on the surface, but there are still good students and good teachers at every school, said Leslie Steinhaus, Whitewater Unified School District administrator.

Studies that show apparent deficiencies should not be a reason for a parent to panic or worry about their child's education.

"They are just numbers. They only tell part of the story," Steinhaus said. "For us, we'd hope parents come visit us. Call the principal. Call the schools. Find out more about the schools and what makes it a good school. There are factors that influence a student's achievement, but that's only a part and parcel of the story."

For educators, seeing progress in a student's learning is the most important thing, Steinhaus said.

"Where they are and where they grow is more of a concern," she said. "Students of poverty or not, our goal is just to move them closer (to proficient or advanced levels) and make sure that every year they experience some growth."

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