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News / Opinion / Columns
The following is presented as part of The Columbian’s Opinion content, which offers a point of view in order to provoke thought and debate of civic issues. Opinions represent the viewpoint of the author. Unsigned editorials represent the consensus opinion of The Columbian’s editorial board, which operates independently of the news department.

Local View: Vancouver schools takes lead in helping needy pupils

By Steve Webb
Published: October 25, 2015, 6:00am

The dearth of affordable housing in Vancouver and Portland is making headlines and becoming a daily crisis for city leaders. In Vancouver Public Schools, we see the related impacts of housing instability and poverty on children and families, too.

Students qualifying for free or reduced-price meals peaked recently at 57 percent, up from 39 percent less than a decade ago. VPS served 830 homeless students, approximately 3.5 percent of our total enrollment, last year. The recent displacement of residents from Courtyard Village and Gihm Apartments put these statistics into real-life perspective as dozens of families lost their homes. For too many of Vancouver’s children, poverty presents barriers to learning.

But here’s some hopeful news.

Since 2008, proficiency in early literacy among kindergarten students in VPS is up 21 percentage points. Third-grade Measures of Student Progress reading scores show a narrowing of the achievement gap between English Language Learner students and non-ELL students by nearly 20 percentage points. And, the on-time graduation rate is projected to reach nearly 80 percent in 2015, up from 64 percent in 2010.

How did so many more of our students overcome challenges to achieve academic success?

The Opportunity Zone

In the wake of the Great Recession, and without additional support from the state or federal government, Vancouver Public Schools established the Opportunity Zone, a “whole-system,” community schools approach for improving student achievement in 16 schools that serve our highest-needs neighborhoods.

Through partnerships, we mobilized community resources in support of children and families. Family-Community Resource Centers were expanded to all 16 of the Opportunity Zone schools. FCRC coordinators at those sites worked with partners to provide basic needs assistance, parent activities, early childhood education, out-of-school time programs, connections to community-based services, outreach to chronically absent students and other support.

Our partners included businesses, faith-based groups, nonprofit organizations, neighborhood associations and public agencies. The Boys and Girls Clubs of Southwest Washington, for example, offered out-of-school time programs. Vancouver Housing Authority gave vouchers to parents who committed to being involved in their children’s education. Share of Vancouver filled thousands of Friday backpacks with food to eat on the weekends. The Council for the Homeless found housing for displaced families. The Foundation for VPS increased financial support for meeting basic needs. The school district purchased and equipped a commercial vehicle as a mobile FCRC.

Across a range of measures, Opportunity Zone schools demonstrated remarkable progress in leveraging community resources to improve outcomes for poverty-affected students and their families. From 2009-10 to 2013-14, FCRC-related partnerships increased from 22 to 733, and volunteers increased from 673 to 2,660. In 2013-14, FCRCs generated nearly $3.2 million in partner contributions and grant support, leading to an estimated “return on investment” that grew from 2-to-1 in 2010-11 to 4-to-1 in 2013-14. Parent participation in workshops and programs that enhance their skills increased from 2,490 in 2010-11 to 26,490 in 2013-14.

We can get even more students across the finish line.

For Vancouver high schools, the student mobility, or turnover, rate is approximately 33 percent. Ninth-grade students continuously enrolled in our schools for four years have an on-time graduation rate of 86 percent. If students come to us in grades 10-12, however, they often are disproportionately behind in credits, and the high school completion rate is much lower. The on-time graduation rate for students transferring to VPS as sophomores is 66 percent. The rate for students transferring as juniors and seniors is below 60 percent. Family stability and continuous enrollment of students in our schools are keys to boosting academic success and preparing all students for college, careers and life.

Steven T. Webb, Ed.D., is superintendent of Vancouver Public Schools.