Commissioner Discusses Future of Education in Nebraska

Last year's Nebraska State of the Schools Report highlighted significant achievement gaps among student ethnic groups that state educators hope to reduce. (Photo courtesy Department of Education)
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September 10, 2014 - 6:30am

The Nebraska Department of Education is slated to release its 2014 State of the Schools Report on October 24th. NET News’ Ben Bohall talked with NDE Commissioner Matt Blomstedt about Nebraska’s achievement gap and some of the improvements the department hopes the new report will reflect.

NET NEWS: The latest Nebraska State of the Schools report is slated to be released on October 24th. When you look back to the 2012-2013 report, what are some priorities you identified in terms of improvements that needed to be made heading into this year?

MATTHEW BLOMSTEDT: Every year, as we look at data, we try to identify areas where we could provide particular focus on making improvement. Obviously, we try to focus in on areas that we might be able to build supports for school districts in order to ultimately know and understand their students better... With our 245 school districts, it could be any number of things that they may need to address, so we look for ways to provide supports for each one of those districts.

The State Board of Education named Matt Blomstedt Commissioner of Education in December 2013. (Photo courtesy Nebraska Department of Education)

NET NEWS: Looking specifically at graduation rates within the state, there are disparities present between different ethnic groups. While the overall graduation rate is rather high at around 88 percent, we see those numbers drop off. For example: Hispanic students are at 78 percent, Black students are at 74 percent, and American Indian students are at 67 percent. That’s all in contrast to a 91 percent graduation rate for white students. What is your department doing to try and close some of those gaps?

BLOMSTEDT: We're actually in the process of looking at how we handle accountability. We're hiring a new student achievement coordinator position. Our concerns about gaps include, in particular, those that have challenges on family income levels and students that are otherwise at risk due to mobility or due to even migrant status. When you look at the sub-population, they don't tend to do as well. We look at ways that we might be able to help stabilize the environment and make sure that there's school improvement and a continuous improvement process. (We're) really focusing in on the individual student so that we make sure they're supported as students for their success.

NET NEWS: Some of the percentage gaps have been tied into issues involving socio-economic status. How do you and your educators make the attempt to bridge the gap between the classroom and home-life?

BLOMSTEDT: Among the things you look at, you certainly see opportunity gaps for students- especially moments in time like during summers where students might not have the same kinds of resources (they'd have in school). Simple things we take for granted, like vacations. How much time do they spend on critical thinking, reading, other educational experiences like visiting museums, libraries, whatever it may be. We realize we're creating a gap that continues to persist for certain low income students, in particular. As you look at that, you ask, 'What can we do around encouraging activities in the summer, with out-of-school activities and experiences that might benefit that, and might actually begin to close that opportunity gap?'

The 2012-2013 State of the School Report reflects disparities among ethnic groups in proficiency areas such as reading, writing, math, and science. (Graphic by NET News)

NET NEWS: Has the Nebraska Department of Education looked specifically at any other programs designed to raise graduation rates among minority groups, or in general?

BLOMSTEDT: A lot of the focus is really on what community support systems there are and linking those very closely to the school time experiences, as well. When you start to realize that certain students are at risk for either dropout or not being able to successfully complete school in their normal, cohort graduation group, you look at what supports they may ultimately need. There's a lot going on nationally, but it really becomes important to look at collective impact: How the family supports that student, how the community supports that student, and then ultimately how the school environment supports that student. As we look at it from a statewide perspective, we have to look at investments that help support our schools and tie those pieces together. (We look at) everything from data systems to ultimately including school improvement processes that are really focused on providing that whole safety net of services that students have a lot of things to capture and participate in, in order to ensure their success.

NET looks closer at education in America during a special American Graduate Day of programming.  Watch Saturday, September 27 on NET1 and NET2 World Television.



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