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Input sought on achievement gap

Five preliminary recommendations for closing the student achievement gap in Utah schools are to be discussed at a town hall meeting tonight by a governor-appointed committee.

The 6:30 p.m. meeting of the governor's working group on student achievement is scheduled at the Horizonte Instruction and Training Center auditorium, 1234 S. Main, and is one of six public meetings planned statewide on the recommendations.

Working group member Michael Clara, former chairman of the Coalition of Minorities Advisory Committee to the State Board of Education, said the first recommendation is to create a permanent governor's commission on raising student achievement.

"There are still volumes of stuff we'd like to see come up over the next four to five years," he said.

Tammy Kikuchi, Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr.'s spokeswoman, said the governor wants to look over the recommendations and review public comment before making a decision on bringing the initiatives before lawmakers.

But some community advocates, including Gonzalo Palza, a member of the Hispanic/Latino Advisory Council, have expressed concern that the town meetings "will be nothing else but a sales pitch for something that has already been approved."

Palza said the working group should have reached out to a broader audience of those with a stake in closing the achievement gap from the very beginning.

Palza said the draft proposal is lacking some things he'd like to see, such as initiatives to encourage parental involvement in education.

Clara defended the working group, saying the meetings were open to the public and that members "had a pretty good hold on what was happening." The members are teachers, legislators, administrators, community advocates and others with a stake in education.

"We want to try to be transparent," Clara said. "I don't understand this criticism of public hearings after the fact; there's no after the fact."

Governor's Education Deputy Christine Kearl pointed to a recommendation to give universal access to optional all-day kindergarten and other early intervention as "the first strike at closing the achievement gap."

However, full-day kindergarten is one of the recommendations that requires both legislative approval and funding. Lawmakers have given it a cold response in the past.

Full-day kindergarten in schools where at least 20 percent of students are ethnic minorities would cost $30 million. In Title I schools only, it would cost $5.5 million.

Working group member Rep. Duane Bourdeaux, D-Salt Lake, said the recommendations are a good starting point in raising the bar for student achievement, but he would like to have put more on the table for lawmakers to consider.

He's taking his own initiative on at least one recommendation that wasn't included — looking at accountability for how schools encourage students, particularly ethnic minorities, to take Advanced Placement classes.

"A lot of kids are ready," he said. "The more we push them, the better off they'll be."


E-mail: dbulkeley@desnews.com