Our President, our kids and what we need to do

One of the best parts of my new job at Generation Next is that I get to spend most days (and nights) talking about how to make life better for every kid.   One of those conversations last week was especially memorable because I had it with President Obama in the Oval Office.

The President asked me about our work at Generation Next. I told him:

  • Minneapolis-St. Paul is one of the most gifted, generous communities in the country but we also have a shockingly large gap in outcomes for kids.  Worse, those gaps fall sharply along racial lines.
  • We know we have to act now, so we are working on solutions with a coalition of foundations, companies, governments, school districts and organizations that provide services to children, and, most important, families and kids.
  • Several hundred people are developing our actions plans. In the next month we will be focused on implementing actions from the Early Literacy and College/Career networks.  Next comes a special focus on actions that help every child mastering reading by 3rd grade and reaching math benchmarks by 8th grade.
  • We are working with Wilder Research to measure progress of all kids, and make those accessible and understandable for every family.  Our benchmarks will not only include tangible academic goals, but also the social/emotional skills kids need to thrive.

(This was a lot to tell the President in a short meeting but, as most of you know, I talk fast.)

The President talked about the meeting he had the past week with 100 presidents of major universities, encouraging them to provide more opportunities for low-income students.  One participant was University of Minnesota President Eric Kaler, co-chair of the Generation Next Leadership Council, who used the opportunity to announce a very promising effort to improve first year retention rates for low-income students.

I have had the good fortune to meet with the President several times and it’s very clear he has a special passion when he talks about youth and education.   The same is true of First Lady Michelle Obama, who told that group of university presidents that she was fortunate to go to Princeton and more kids from working class families deserve that chance.  Hearing the President and First Lady talk about these issues makes it clear giving every child an opportunity to thrive transcends the partisan and political; for them it is deeply personal. They understand they are in the White House today, in part, because they were children without privilege lifted by education.  They get, on a very personal level, what Generation Next is fighting for.

At the end of our meeting, the President said both he, and the First Lady will focus even more on these issues in the next three years, and will keep working on them when they leave office.  In many ways it sounded like they are trying to do at the federal level what Generation Next is doing in Minneapolis-St. Paul.

It’s great to have Generation Next on the President’s radar, and it’s even better to know he is working to align all arms of the federal government.

That could include more coordination of efforts like:

  • Building support networks for families and children in low income neighborhoods like St. Paul Promise Neighborhood and Minneapolis’ Northside Achievement Zone,
  • Summer job support like the federal aid that helps fund Step Up jobs.
  • Federal Race to the Top funding which supports early childhood scholarships in Minneapolis and St. Paul, and
  • The First Lady’s work on healthy food and her advocacy of physical activity through Let’s Move.

I had this meeting at a time when there is an unprecedented effort in Minneapolis-St. Paul to align all arms of government, philanthropy, business and community to attack our shocking achievement gap:

  • I don’t believe I have ever seen such focus on a single issue from the Minneapolis-St. Paul philanthropic community, especially those foundations that started and are major supporters of Generation Next:  United Way, St. Paul Foundation, Minneapolis Foundation, McKnight Foundation, Wilder Foundation, Bush Foundation, Northwest Area Foundation and the foundations of General Mills, Target, Cargill and 3M.
  •  President Kaler at the University of Minnesota and Chancellor Steven Rosenstone of the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities, helped launch Generation Next, and have taken a series of actions to improve access and success for low income kids of all races.  Paul Cerkvenik, President of the Minnesota Private College Council, has also been active in Generation Next, as have Augsburg President Paul Pribbenow, and St. Paul College President Rassoul Dastmozd, who both sit on our leadership council.
  • The business community understands clearly that we will face a serious worker shortage in just a few years if parts of our population don’t get the education they need. The Itasca Group, Minnesota Chamber of Commerce, Chambers of Minneapolis and St. Paul, Minnesota Business Partnership and Greater MSP all have made closing the achievement gap a top priority.  Generation Next will be working with all of them and I will be speaking at the Minnesota Chamber Education Summit Feb. 6.
  • Hennepin County Commissioner Peter McLaughlin and Ramsey County administrator Judy Kleinschmidt have been extremely important members of our leadership council because they oversee so many programs that impact the kids most in need.  Last month Hennepin County approved spending $1.4 million more for early childhood education.
  • St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman has long been a leader on youth and education, and is now a major national player in his role as Chair of the National League of Cities.  At last week’s U.S. Conference of Mayors he made a very strong case to Education Sec. Arne Duncan and the nation’s mayors that measuring student success should include the kind of social and emotional skills Generation Next will be including in our outcomes.  The Mayor is also planning a summer youth jobs program called The Right Track.
  • I know from having worked very closely with new Minneapolis Mayor Betsy Hodges that she has a real passion for helping kids and closing disparity gaps.  She has said very clearly that she will be especially focused on coordinating help for kids from birth to the time they must be ready for kindergarten.
  • St. Paul Superintendent Valeria Silva and Minneapolis Superintendent Bernadeia Johnson have put a remarkable amount of effort into helping launch Generation Next, and have been willing to shake up a status quo that is not working like it has to for all kids.  The leaders of both the Minneapolis and St. Paul teachers unions have also been active Generation Next Leadership Council members.
  • In the parts of our community with the largest disparity, Minneapolis’ Northside Achievement Zone and St. Paul Promise Neighborhood are building—block by block— the kind of parent and community support we know helps kids succeed.
  • Three key community leaders—Wilder President MayKao Hang, Eric Mahmoud of the Harvest Prep Schools, and Carlos Mariani Rosa of the Minnesota Minority Education Partnership—have begun an effort to help Generation Next work more directly with organizations serving kids of color.  Look for Generation Next to take more steps very soon to deepen our connection to the students and parents who need our help most.
  • I also know from my time as Mayor, and time here, that there are literally thousands of people focused on hundreds of efforts to help kids get the start they deserve.
  • Finally, we are strengthening our partnership with a growing network of other communities. Target has funded a partnership between Minneapolis-St. Paul and six communities around the country.  This effort is led by Jeff Edmondson, whose StriveTogether network in Cincinnati is a model we follow. We will also partner with several Minnesota cities developing similar plans with help from the Blandin Foundation. 

We don’t lack compassion in Minneapolis-St. Paul.  We lack alignment.  Our job at Generation Next is to focus all these efforts on the solutions that do the most to help the kids who need it the most.

That is not a simple task, but all of us, especially our kids, have never needed it more.

R.T. Rybak, Executive Director, Generation Next

SIF 2015