Central Oregon schools tackle 'achievement gap'

'Trying to get homework done when you're homeless is pretty difficult'

C. Oregon schools take on 'achievement gap'

REDMOND, Ore. - Gov. John Kitzhaber has a lofty goal: He wants 100 percent of Oregon students to graduate high school by 2025. To reach this goal, schools need to target help for special groups, like students who come from low-income families.

A report released Monday by the Annie E. Casey Foundation said 19 percent of low-income third-graders are lacking in "age-appropriate cognitive abilities."

The gap comes from what happens during the first eight years of life -- some studies say even earlier than that, in the first three years of life.

A study by Betty Hart and Todd R. Risely finds that children from affluent families have heard 30 million more words by the age of 3 than children from low-income families.

This creates a huge gap in literacy, social skills and writing skills as early as kindergarten, and it is a difficult gap to tighten.

"It is a real thing, and it's important for us to bridge that gap and create opportunities for vocabulary development and opportunities for reading," Julie Gilbertson, a second-grade teacher at Lynch Elementary, said Thursday.

It isn't just a problem in Central Oregon.

"I mean, that's not a school district issue -- it's a societal issue, for sure," said Dave VanLoo, director of school improvement for Bend-La Pine Schools.

It's an issue prevalent in Central Oregon. As of last month, 53 percent of Redmond School District students were on the free and reduced meal program.  

"Sometimes, we'll find out a family is homeless," said Desiree Margo, principal of Lynch Elementary. "Well, trying to get homework done when you're homeless is pretty difficult to do."

Often, parents worry about how they'll get food on the table for the next meal. Making time for things like reading gets pushed aside.

"Again, if there isn't heat in the house or water in the house, I expect that to be the top need or priority they take care of," Margo said.

There are few things in those early years that can help children more than just reading a book.  

"The vocabulary of children who come to kindergarten who have had the benefit of having books read to them, or who have just had conversations in the car -- it's amazing the difference," Margo said.

Redmond schools try to create a safe haven for children through the Family Access Network, or FAN Program.   

FAN helps students with anything from tutoring to winter coats. They also serve as a liaison between parents and community services, to help them with their needs.

"They're noticing the kids are tired or they have torn-up shoes and need a new pair," said Christina Diaz-Toledo, the FAN advocate for Lynch Elementary.

Lynch Elementary believes in a holistic approach to helping their students succeed. From their success in the classroom to their parents success at home, it all matters to them while trying to meet the governor's goals.

"I do believe that all children can be ready for college and career," Margo said.

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