Tapping Brain Power to Build More Brain Power

If there was a single thing that could close the achievement and opportunity gaps in Minneapolis-St. Paul, if one action could make sure every young person had the tools they need to thrive, I believe our compassionate community would have done that by now.

The clear, sad fact is there are many factors that make the gaps in our community so large, and it will take many collective actions to make change.  That’s why Generation Next and the 500 groups that have been part of our coalition are focused on a Cradle-to-Career work plan with five goals:

We are attacking this work with the urgency it deserves, but we are also working on each stage of a young person’s development.

We thank those of you who have been part of the work so far, and we will need every one of you to make sure every child thrives.  Please save the date of May 21st at 10:00 AM (additional details, including location, to come) for our Stakeholder Meeting to hear about the progress we are making on our goals and what you can do to help.

Our coalition has brought together families, students, teachers, schools, foundations, civic and business leaders, and hundreds of people doing work with children every day.  That’s not easy: the Land of 10,000 Lakes sometimes seems like the Land of 10,000 Initiatives and Organizations. The good news is that the many players in our civic infrastructure are increasingly finding ways to work together, challenge the status quo and ask the tough questions.  This makes us more confident than ever that Minneapolis-St. Paul has the capacity and commitment to never give up until every child succeeds.

We are also learning from similar groups in other parts of the country.   I spent yesterday with a group of leaders from other collaborative partnerships around the country and we will increasingly be comparing efforts to quickly replicate what is working elsewhere.  The group I met with yesterday included leaders of initiatives across the country like Generation Next, inspired by the work the StrivePartnership is doing in Cincinnati that has led to significant improvements for kids of color.

No community has solved this issue, and we are wary of some magic bullet from elsewhere.   Minneapolis-St. Paul is unique and needs unique efforts.   But the day I spent with those leaders from the other cities in the StriveTogether network gave me some very good food for thought.

Each of us in yesterday’s StriveTogether meeting brought one key issue we are wrestling with and the group of leaders from around the country agreed to trade ideas about how to help.

The issue I raised was meeting our 3rd goal that: “Every young person meets benchmarks in math by 8th grade.”    Over the last two months, while doing the rest of our work, we have been asking educators, researchers and other practitioners to help us understand why so many kids of color in our community lag in math outcomes and, more important, what we can do about it.   The input we have gathered varies greatly; from specific strategies for in-school and out-of-school curriculum, to ideas for helping families develop the skills they need to help with homework, to disrupting the mindset that has too many of our children check-out at a young age by saying they “aren’t good at math.”     We are also asking our partners if the best approach is to focus specifically on math or focus our interventions more broadly on “STEM” (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math.)

We are also putting this question to our data committee, a very wise group that includes the directors of research, evaluation and assessment for Minneapolis and St. Paul public schools, researchers from the Minnesota Department of Education, Wilder Research, the University of Minnesota, the Office of Higher Education, the St. Paul Public Schools Foundation, and Hennepin and Ramsey counties.

While doing all this local work on how we approach our math goal, we can now tap the collective knowledge of the national StriveTogether network.   Yesterday’s meeting didn’t yield any clear ideas we can borrow (steal?) but there are some bright spots around the country.  One impressive effort came out of Austin, TX, which built a collaboration of 25 community partners to increase the number of students in the STEM pipeline by 560%.   Another small, but interesting idea out of San Antonio, was a bi-lingual phone app to give parents tools to help their kids learn, including some strategies for helping with math homework.

A couple other random pieces of knowledge I picked up in our conversations with the other StriveTogether leaders:

  • Most of the efforts like ours struggle with scale. Developing a promising idea in a small area is one thing; replicating it to impact many kids is very different, and often very difficult.
  • Most of the other efforts see what we see at Gen Next: It’s time to rebuild career pathways for certified vocational work that may not include college. You will be hearing more about our efforts in this area in the coming months.
  • Developing solutions is significantly harder in the many cities where there are multiple school districts. The single biggest challenge is that smaller districts usually do not have the resources to develop the robust assessment and research departments, something we are fortunate to have in Minneapolis and St. Paul.
  • I heard about a school in Cincinnati that has made tremendous progress to completely eliminate the achievement gap and, impressively, did not have a single suspension last year. They attribute much of their success to having a special intervention team that can help teachers when an issue develops with a student, from academics to behavior. This enables the teacher to continue moving the classroom forward while the team addresses the issues of the individual student.  To staff these teams the school has taken some teachers out of classrooms, meaning there is the difficult trade-off of larger classes.

We will keep working with these other StriveTogether initiatives around the country to see what more we can learn, and they are committed to pooling their brains on math, and other Generation Next issues, when they have their annual national convening in Minneapolis-St. Paul in October.

I want to be very clear: Generation Next is not about finding some one-size-fits-all cure from somewhere else and try to shoehorn it into Minneapolis-St. Paul.   The core of our work will be homegrown, which is why we want you to come to that Stakeholder meeting on May 21st.     But having access to this StriveTogether network helps us expand the brainpower we have on this issue.  And when we face a challenge so critical to our future, we need all the help we can get.

– R.T. Rybak

p.s. What are your thoughts on how we should approach our goal that “Every young person meets benchmarks in math by 8th grade?”

Email us at info@gennextmsp.org

SIF 2015