June 15, 2016

CHEYENNE  – Last week, Wyoming State Board of Education coordinator Paige Fenton Hughes testified at the Select Committee on Tribal Relations meeting at the Central Wyoming College Intertribal Education and Community Center in Riverton to discuss the widening opportunity gap for American Indian students. Poverty and low attendance rates were cited as primary drivers for declining achievement, proficiency and overall K-12 success. Rob Black and Bill Pannell from the Wyoming Department of Education also testified.

Scott Ratliff, Wyoming State Board of Education member, and Fenton Hughes met with Wyoming reservation school leaders in early June to learn more about current challenges and how children would benefit from early childhood programs aimed at improving kindergarten readiness and developing an early love for learning.

During the Tribal Relations committee meeting, Fenton Hughes discussed concerns cited by school leaders on the reservation, including the role that poor attendance plays for struggling students: “School attendance is an issue on the reservation and across Wyoming. Students need to come to the classroom ready to learn – and they need to come. But schools can’t do it alone. We need to offer support outside of the classroom, as well as quality, optional, universal preschool education for all students in Wyoming.”

The board presented the following outline for a comprehensive, collaborative program designed to increase student success on the reservation. It is based on other successful programs across the U.S. – like Harlem Children’s Zone.

  • Pre-natal and parenting coaching and support.
  • Family centers and outreach from birth to three.
  • Quality, optional, universal early childhood options for every child in Wyoming.
  • A new approach to attendance: Develop an early love for learning, as well as incentive-based programs that place greater responsibility on students, families and communities.
  • Expanded course offerings for every child in every school to ensure students are prepared for postsecondary success.
  • Development and sharing of resources and curricular materials about the history and culture of the American Indian tribes in Wyoming available for integration into classrooms.
  • System of support: A collaborative council, composed of the State Board of Education and its partners in education, is already moving forward with a comprehensive support system for school improvement that includes tangible interventions, such as root cause analysis of issues.

The Wyoming State Board of Education has long advocated for incentive-based school attendance policies across the state. “Schools are doing everything they can to get kids to attend,” said Ratliff. “When they have exhausted all options, schools need a system that intervenes on their behalf. One idea is the creation of a juvenile court system. Today, only a small number of the hundreds of cases referred to the current legal system get addressed, and that doesn’t do schools or children any good.”

“For the first time in our history as a nation, we are facing a time when our kids may have fewer opportunities than their parents,” said Fenton Hughes. “The opportunity gap is widening. We can reverse this trend in Wyoming, but only if we take action and embrace the fact that student success goes well beyond what happens in the classroom – and it starts before kids are born.”

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Chelsie Oaks
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