A lot to do – but it CAN be done

In the week since Generation Next announced our Action Agenda, we are receiving overwhelmingly positive media coverage, but one question keeps coming up.

The question is deceivingly simple and deceivingly difficult to answer.

The question I keep getting asked is: “Can this work?”

The question isn’t usually directed at the specific actions we laid out for helping every young person be ready for Kindergarten, master reading by Grade 3 and graduate from High School.

Instead it questions whether Minneapolis-St. Paul can really change a status quo that has, for many years, meant we had one of the largest achievement gaps in the country.  “If no one has figured out how to fix this yet, how can the Generation Next coalition?”

One way to answer the question is to say, “We have no option; It HAS TO work.” We are coming into a time when our region will have a serious worker shortage and the only parts of the population growing are the same communities of color on the wrong side of the achievement gap.  If we don’t figure this out our economy will grind to a halt.

Another way to answer whether this can work is to point to success elsewhere, including the Cincinnati StriveTogether initiative that has been a model for some of our work.

A better answer to the question is:  I believe “it can work” is because I have seen it. Over the years—especially but not only during my time as Mayor—I have seen this community help young people beat the odds over and over again.  We aren’t consistent enough, we aren’t aligned enough, we aren’t focused enough and we have not had enough of a sense of urgency. But we have had success.

This Summer I have seen rooms full, schools full and sometimes auditoriums full, of young people in our community illustrating we have some promising practices that are working for our kids of color:

  • On a beautiful July morning at the St. Paul Public Schools CDF Freedom School’s Harambee Read-Aloud, I saw skilled instructors use culturally specific strategies to help about 100 African American and Latino children deepen their reading skills.  St. Paul Freedom Schools have shown success is stemming the learning loss that typically takes place during the summer.
  • Using arts for academic achievement has been a theory for many years but Friendship Academy for the Arts in south Minneapolis is proving it works.  Monday I visited this warm, lively learning environment and the next morning the Star Tribune featured its arts immersion program as one of the state’s most effective interventions to help children below the poverty line succeed.
  • On a mid-July morning a classroom at Saint Paul College was filled with incoming students getting math help so they will be ready to start college in the fall. This diverse classroom was exactly what we were thinking about 10 years ago when I was part of the group that launched The Power of YOU, a scholarship/student support program for Minneapolis and St. Paul students below the poverty level.  Today these students at Saint Paul College and Minneapolis Community and Technical College are now 10% more likely to graduate college, in part because of support like that math class they take the summer before enrollment.
  • A couple weeks ago the Guthrie Theater was filled with 2,000 students, and their families for the latest STEP-UP graduation. They joined 20,000 students–more than 80% kids of color and 30% from immigrant families–who have had a STEP-UP summer job in most of the region’s best companies and organizations. This Summer STEP-UP intern Paige Thomas joined our staff, as well as Ke’Aris Thomas, a Washington Tech student in St. Paul’s Right Track summer jobs program. If you want to see students of color who will definitely succeed, meet Paige and Ke’Aris.

Best news of all: I could go on and on with more examples of programs and young people who are showing we can, in fact, close the achievement gap.  No, it won’t be easy. No, it won’t be one single action.  We need many actions on many fronts.  Probably most important: We cannot let the lack of progress made in these last few decades make us so cynical about taking action that we end up with an unacceptable status quo.

I am more confident every day that we can win this battle.  Even better, I’ve already seen hundreds of our children already starting to win.


This week, the state of Minnesota released the latest data on student performance by school.  Overall the numbers are flat and the results have changed little from last year. Our team is analyzing the details to find the schools who have made significant progress with the students who need the most intentional support services, especially students of color, ELL students and low-income students.  We will cover some of those bright spots within the data in a blog next week.

SIF 2015