Willmar makes progress on World's Best Workforce goals

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WILLMAR — Willmar Middle School students' math scores are above the state average, exceeding the goals set in the district's World's Best Workforce plan.

While Willmar is making progress in nearly all areas, the math scores were the highlight when the district conducted its annual public hearing on its World's Best Workforce progress recently.

Director of Teaching and Learning Carrie Thomas described the district's progress for the Willmar School Board along with Judi Sprung, director of state and federal programs. Most of the results they shared are from the 2016-17 school year.

"Striving for the World's Best Workforce" is a 2013 law requiring schools to meet state expectations in kindergarten readiness, third-grade reading levels, closing achievement gaps, preparing students for career/college, and graduation rates.

The law was adopted to address a statewide labor shortage and the growing number of jobs requiring postsecondary education, Thomas said.

The middle school math scores are a component of the college/career readiness goal. Willmar's proficiency climbed 6 points to 59 percent over three years. It's short of the 62 percent goal, but it was higher than the state proficiency rate.

Thomas said the scores are notable because Willmar's demographics are quite different from the state. The statewide student poverty rate is about 38 percent; Willmar's is 61 percent.

Third-grade reading proficiency, on the other hand, declined nearly 5 percent from 2016 to 2017.

"When we saw this data come through in 2017, it was very alarming," Thomas said. "We take this very seriously."

Administrators and teachers have been gathering data to try to diagnose the problem. During the review, they have noted inequities between classroom libraries, which can be an important part of teaching children to read, she said.

Traditionally, teachers have developed their own classroom libraries using their own money, Thomas said. That system is probably no longer workable, as it has resulted in differences between the classrooms of new and experienced teachers.

The district used Title I funding to upgrade smaller classroom libraries and will need to support all the libraries going forward, Thomas said. Teachers will also receive training in developing classroom libraries.

Thomas said the district fell just shy of its current target of 58 percent of young children being ready for school in their letter recognition.

Thomas said this goal will always be a challenge, because the district can't control how many families send their children to voluntary preschool programs.

A state official has suggested adjusting the goal to focus on the preschool screening process to find children in need of academic support.

Willmar's achievement gap between low-income students and their more affluent peers has been shrinking, Sprung said. "The gap is getting smaller ... but not as fast as we would like."

Only one school in the state met the original goal of cutting the gap in half by this year. Willmar's math gap shrank 3 percent, to 34 percent in 2017.

Board members discussed ways to offer more academic support for the English Learners program.

Willmar's four-year graduation rates increased by 3 percent or more in four of seven demographic categories. The most recent figures are from 2016; 2017 rates haven't been released yet.

The goal was to increase by 3 percent in all categories. The groups that did not increase 3 percent were the overall graduation rate and that of white students, which stayed about the same at 84 percent and 92 percent, respectively. The low-income rate of graduation grew nearly 2 percent, to 71 percent.

Increases in the graduation rate for some other groups were dramatic — black students increased 5 percent to 49 percent; Hispanic students increased 8 percent to 84 percent; English Learners increased 9 percent to 45 percent; and special education increased 7 percent to 70 percent.