Natalia Contreras isn't just thinking ahead, she's living ahead.
The Kennedy High School junior is planning to graduate early. When she's not in class, tackling a schedule that includes Advanced Placement classes, she works at a restaurant so she can save money for that impending college tuition.
Once she leaves Kennedy, Contreras hopes to attend Kirkwood Community College before transferring to the University of Iowa to study nursing.
If she ever faced an achievement gap – the term given to the difference in performance between students who fit into certain subgroups such as English Language Learners, special education or between students of color or qualifying for free and reduced-price lunches and their counterparts who don't – Contreras appears to have traversed it.
And she’s not alone within the Cedar Rapids Community School District high school’s walls.
The achievement gap statistically is very real. For Kennedy’s success in narrowing it, the State Board of Education has honored the schools staff with a 2013 Breaking Barriers to Teaching and Learning Award.
“I think somewhat it’s how well the teachers explain the material,” Contreras replied when asked why she thought the school received the designation. “It all depends on each students and how well they put their effort through.”
To select honorees, Iowa Department of Education staff analyze several years of student performance on the Iowa Assessments standardized tests and conduct interviews with building principals.
Closing the achievement gap “has been a goal for the state board for quite a long time,” said Staci Hupp, the department’s communications director.
“We think it’s really important to give all students the foundation they need in education to succeed after high school,” Hupp said.
According to department enrollment data from the 2012-13 school year, 79.8 percent of Iowa’s public school pre-kindergarten through 12th-graders are white. Those demographics, and how that population is distributed, complicate finding which districts make strides in student performance when it comes to certain subgroups.
“Having enough students that you could make statistically sound judgment on increases gets to be particularly difficult,” said Jay Pennington, chief of the department’s bureau of information and analysis services, about determining which schools receive the Breaking Barriers award.
“If we think of the state of Iowa as a whole, we’ve got 9 percent of the districts educating 51 percent of the student population … . When you start talking about subgroups, in some of the more rural parts of the state, there just aren’t that many students.”
Kennedy High School earned the honor because its proficiency rate among Latino students in 92.3 percent for reading and mathematics. The statewide average among Latino students is 58.8 percent.
Of the 1,790 students enrolled at Kennedy, only 37 – just over 2 percent – identify as Latino. That small number makes it very sensitive to any changes in performance – positive or negative
"While it is small compared to a lot of other subgroups, just in terms of the overall numbers, it means that they’re doing something good that we need to look at there to see what are the supports that exist," Pennington said.
Kennedy Principal Jason Kline attributed much of the success to building staff, including his predecessor Mary Wilcynski, who retired in June after 16 years as the school’s principal.
“I think this honor reflects that Kennedy is committed to helping all students,” Kline said. “The number one thing at the core is our staff, which is very committed to change.”
He has worked to further Wilcynski’s focus on providing rigorous classes – particularly Advanced Placement offerings.
“We’re continuing that tradition at Kennedy of encouraging students to take challenging courses and not stay where they’re comfortable, but actually see the potential inside of them,” he said.
Roxanne Mendoza, a senior whose first language is Spanish, praised Wilcynski for that push.
"Last year we had a principal who, whether or not they had been in (Advanced Placement classes) or not, encouraged students to try it," she said.
Mendoza took that advice as a sophomore and enrolled in Advanced Placement world history.
"I didn't know what the class would be like," she said, though she noted that her schedule doesn't include any Advanced Placement classes.
Sophomore Luis Garanadillo, whose family is from Venezuela, is currently enrolled in Advanced Placement courses.
“It provides a challenge,” he said.
“It prepares you,” Contreras added. “You know what you’re going to expect from your professors in college.”
While there are no specific initiatives designed to target Latino students at Kennedy – Kline said staff focuses on individual students as opposed to subgroups – staff members have expanded programs to reach at-risk learners.
That work includes changing Study Table — an after-school program in which students can do homework and receive additional help — from being available only during the school year’s third term to year-round four days each week.
Between 25 and 30 students attend Study Table each day, and staff members provide bus tickets for students who need a way home after the sessions.
There’s also Check and Connect, in which staff serve as sounding boards for students – “The kids talk about everything,” said Jenny Wagner, a teacher and interventionist at Kennedy – and monitor their grades and attendance.
“You mentor them and get to know their families and goals,” said Wagner, who estimated that she worked with between 40 and 45 students. “You use that to make sure you’re having an impact on the kids.”
Another way Kennedy staff reach students, Contreras said, is by promoting an inviting and welcoming atmosphere that students work to maintain. Mendoza agreed that at Kennedy there's room for all students regardless of their differences.“Mostly everyone gets along,” she said.