Rapid City Area Schools Superintendent Lori Simon underlined the importance of early childhood education as she addressed the Pennington County Republican Women on Thursday. She suggested strong school-based pre-kindergarten could play a vital role in closing persistent achievement gaps between children in the school district.
Simon served as the organization’s guest speaker for this month with her presentation on Thursday at the Hotel Alex Johnson, in Rapid City. Earlier this month, she announced her decision to resign as RCAS superintendent after the school year has ended. She will have served six years in the position.
Simon’s presentation covered a broad range of territory, from academic performance to construction needs within the district. She also spent time unpacking the uses of various kinds of assessment, including the South Dakota State Test of Educational Progress.
An area that sparked a question later – and that seemed to underpin much of the data Simon delivered throughout her presentation – was the level of readiness RCAS students displayed at the beginning of their school careers. Simon showed data from Acadience learning assessments, which the district has been using in reading for four years and in math for one. It’s used for children at various grade levels, but here Simon focused on children just coming into kindergarten. She looked at reading and math.
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“What we’re seeing is a trend over four years’ time of only about 40% of our kindergartners beginning school developmentally where we would expect them to be, in terms of their reading preparedness,” she said. “We see a very similar story with math.”
She said about 43% of the school district’s kindergartners start at a solid readiness level with regard to math.
“The big takeaway is that the achievement gap exists before students even start school,” she said.
Simon discussed a related issue at some length: the impact of poverty on learning. She noted that the poverty rate in RCAS stands at 53.5%, several percentage points higher than the rate in Sioux Falls and about 17 percentage points higher than the state average.
During the question-and-answer session, one attendee asked, “Is there anything that can be done as a community to close the poverty-learning gap?”
That’s when Simon’s suggestion for school-based pre-kindergarten emerged.
“I’m going to go out on a limb here because I think this is essential,” she replied. “I have leadership experience both as a principal and assistant superintendent, in previous roles and previous districts, closing achievement gaps through the implementation of school-based high-quality pre-K for kids living in poverty.”
She said that in short periods of time, in previous positions, she’s watched strong school-based pre-kindergarten yield significant results.
“That is something that I’ve continued to talk to legislators about,” she said, noting that she’s discussed the topic with teachers in the district as well.
Simon noted that the U.S. Air Force recently conducted a study that included Douglas School District and Rapid City Area Schools. She cited early learning as an area flagged, in the study, as in need of attention.
In a 2021 Support of Military Families report, the U.S. Air Force noted pre -kindergarten learning, graduation rates and chronic absenteeism as “areas requiring additional support” for military families near the Ellsworth Air Force Base. The study can be found at https://www.af.mil/Portals/1/documents/2021SAF/09_Sept/External_CASH_single_map_file_v4.2.pdf.
Simon also noted achievement disparities between Native and non-Native students that appear to extend beyond poverty. She said roughly a third of the district’s students come from Native backgrounds – and she cited statistics revealing performance gaps in the district regardless of economic status, with Native students at a disadvantage.
She said that the district’s Indigenous Education Task Force had recently completed its meetings and assembled an executive summary and recommendations.
Simon’s wide-ranging presentation touched on strong student performances in science, based on a set of assessments in several grades.
“We performed very well and exceeded (national norms) at many grade levels,” she said.
Simon spent much time discussing the district’s staffing needs, noting 35 teaching vacancies and 112 vacancies among classified staff. The latter includes 18 openings for bus drivers. The vacancies, she emphasized, are exacerbated by absences due to illness.
Simon praised the proposed 6% increase in state aid to education, but she noted pressing needs for long-term funding solutions.
She recounted, too, the bond initiative for about $189 million that failed in 2020 to achieve the 60% plus one supermajority required for passage in South Dakota. She reminded the audience that it received 56% of the vote. Now, she said, some of the needs that the bond would have addressed are being met, at least in part, by recent federal Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief funds.
Simon noted that those ESSER funds are being used to build a new South Middle School and are slated to be used to update air purification in all of the district’s schools.
“Using ESSER funds to build this new middle school would reduce that bond plan pretty significantly,” she added.
Sara Frankenstein, president of PCRW, said Simon’s presentation was part of a three-part series on education for the organization, spread out over the coming months. She said she expected a member of the RCAS Board of Education to speak in March, followed by South Dakota Secretary of Education Tiffany Sanderson in April.
“We’ve seen such an interest at a local level, a state level and nationally with regard to children’s education,” Frankenstein said. “We thought we’d give a comprehensive view to our members and others who attend so they can think intelligently about education.”
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