COLUMBIA — On a podium in the media center of Lewis Elementary School, the district's newest elementary school, Columbia Public School officials accepted a $10,000 public engagement grant from the National Education Association.
The grant is meant to supplement plans the district has to bridge academic achievement gaps among students. The main idea is to remove some of the obstacles that stop students from succeeding by improving parental and community involvement in the schools.
"This problem cannot be solved by the school district alone," said NEA President Dennis Van Roekel, who was in Columbia to present the grant at the Tuesday morning news conference. "If your desire is to do more, we want to assist you."
Through its Comprehensive School Improvement Plan committee meetings, the district came up with several ideas to close achievement gaps, including a communitywide survey in October and gathering input from fifth grade to high school students, among other efforts. The grant will help fund those projects.
"We have to listen to the greater community because that's where the support and the funding comes from," Superintendent Chris Belcher said.
Although he said he is not sure what steps will be taken after input is gathered from students, parents and the community, Belcher said facing some of the bigger issues in the district is a good place to start.
One of those issues identified by the district is the increasing number of students living at or below the poverty level — a major inhibitor to academic growth. Belcher said 77.6 percent of black students come from impoverished homes, which equates to about 3,000 students and is up from 72.2 percent five years ago.
In the same time frame, the number of white students coming from poverty has also increased from 18.9 to 24 percent, or about 2,800 students. Overall, roughly one in four children attending Columbia Public Schools will begin this year with less vocabulary, less support and less structure, Belcher said.
"They start with a gap," he emphasized to the crowd. "It's sobering to think what that puts forward for us."
Other districts across the country have been able to use grants like the NEA one to narrow student achievement gaps.
At Putnam City West High School in Oklahoma City, Okla., educators used an NEA grant to improve teachers' relations with Hispanic parents and their involvement. As a result, graduation rates of Hispanic students increased to about 70 percent and the number of Hispanic students passing the state English II assessment rose from 55 to 77 percent from 2008 to 2009.
From 2006 to 2009, educators in Little Rock, Ark., were able to increase the percentage of African-American fifth-graders scoring "proficient" in mathematics from 25 to 45 percent by involving parents and community members in the schools.
Van Roekel said the public engagement grant money comes from a general fund made up of dues from the organization's 3.2 million members, 35,000 of which are located in Missouri.