Joe Townsell had one question Saturday for the Davenport School District grade schoolers gathered in front of him.

“If you could raise your level of performance just one notch, how many of you would do it?”

Most of the third- through fifth-grade students who packed a banquet room at the Radisson Quad-City Plaza Hotel raised their hands.

“That’s consistent with what I’ve always found myself,” said Townsell, a former school board member in Galesburg, Ill. “Everyone wants to improve themselves better than what they were a year ago.”

Townsell, the guest speaker at Saturday’s “Celebration of Education,” said it take encouragement and cooperation from students, teachers and parents to help students improve their skills.

That’s a mission the school district isn’t taking lightly.

During the event, the district rolled out the Greater Achievement Plan, or GAP, which aims to improve reading skills among third- through fifth-grade students by creating a personalized plan to provide additional support services for those who need the most help.

The plan incorporates three main components to improve reading skills: school action, family action and community action, said Kendhal Owoh, director of federal and state programs for the district.

“We at Davenport believe that it takes all of those components to make sure that the students are successful,” she said.

As of Sept. 1, 171 students were selected for the program. Of those, 117 — or 68 percent — are minority students.

Four more students have since been added to the program.

By the numbers

During a school board committee of the whole meeting in August, district officials outlined the results of the 2013 Iowa Assessments.

While 13 of 20 elementary schools in the district saw improvements in reading scores from 2012 to 2013, there was a drop in proficiency among African-American and low-income students in both reading and math.

Reading scores dropped 5.1 and 0.8 percent, respectively, among third- and fifth-grade African-American students. Scores in fourth grade increased slightly.

Among low-income students in third and fourth grades, there was a drop in reading scores of 0.7 and 1 percent, respectively. The reading proficiency scores of fifth-grade students rose 1.4 percent.

Scores for Hispanic third-graders increased by 9.2 percent and 4.1 percent for fifth-graders. Fourth-grade scores for Hispanic students dropped by 7 percent, according to the assessment results.

Owoh said there has been a nationwide urgency to close the achievement gap, especially among African-American and Hispanic students.

The GAP program targets the lowest 25 percent of students, regardless of race, gender or socio-economic status, based on their scores from last year’s Iowa Assessments.

“In Davenport, when considering the achievement gap, we wanted to make sure all of our student needs were met,” she said.

Owoh said many of the students selected this year are those that are “quietly struggling.”

“Most are the quiet students that just need that attention and assertiveness and motivation piece,” she said.

 Creating a plan

The district began working on the GAP program in September.

During parent-teacher conferences this fall, principals, classroom teachers and parents or guardians sat down to create each student’s plan for the school year.

To craft the plan, school officials looked at the student’s Tier 3 plan, which is put in place for those who have the most needs.

For the community component, students may be partnered up with a mentor from an area organization such as Big Brothers Big Sisters of the Mississippi Valley, or with their favorite school staff member, Owoh said.

During Saturday’s kickoff, representatives from a number of organizations, such as Big Brothers Big Sisters, United Neighbors, the Davenport Public Library, Harvest Bible Chapel, Junior Theatre, Alpha Phi Alpha and the League of United Latin American Citizens were on hand to help families.

“Partnering with the Davenport Schools on their GAP program allows us to be more intentional with the limited resources that we have to help mobilize the community and our mentors to connect with the kids that obviously have incredible potential for success but need a little help in the support area,” said Jay Justin, president and chief executive officer of Big Brothers Big Sisters.

Justin said he would like to see the mentors in the program get some tools to help be a positive reading guide for students they are paired with.

A mentoring component is something that piqued the interest of Linda Jensen, whose 9-year-old grandson, Lee, is in the GAP program at Jackson Elementary School.

“I think the community involvement and the mentoring program is pretty interesting,” she said. “I’m sure it’s going to help. I’m pretty optimistic about it.”

Jensen said it may be helpful for Lee to get an outside influence, other than from his family, to help encourage him in school.

“Sometimes I think encouragement can be more influential coming from someone other than grandma or grandpa or his dad,” she said.

For the family component, parents may be asked to journal back and forth with the school about how their child is progressing, Owoh said.

A monthly Saturday Academy also will be held for families in November, January and February.

During those sessions, parents will learn tools on how to help their children improve their reading, how to understand their student's reading level and basic information about their child’s school.

 Making gains

GAP also aims to help students take control of their academic careers.

“We want to make sure that students can be assertive and know how to say what they are learning, how they’re learning and what they need to do to get better,” Owoh said.

Each student will make a portfolio that will include their Greater Achievement Plan, a student interest survey, work samples and any awards or accolades they receive throughout the year.

Students will be tracked based on their Iowa Assessment scores in the spring, as well as other measures such as the Scholastic Reading Inventory and DIBELS (Dynamic Indicators of Basic Early Literacy Skills).

Student progress will continue to be tracked even after they leave the program, Owoh said.

Deniese Harvey attended Saturday’s kickoff with her granddaughter, Glenda, a third-grade student at Adams Elementary School.

Harvey said she was grateful that Glenda was picked for the program. Glenda, who has been in a speech program for the last three or four years, attends an after-school reading program with St. Ambrose University students.

The GAP program, she said, is an extra achievement to help get Glenda where she needs to be.

“I’m just really excited to see what the GAP group is all about,” she said.