The quiet work that will make a big noise

Closing the largest achievement and opportunity gap for kids of color in the country is not a small issue, so our team at Generation Next has come into the new year focused on big picture solutions. In the next few months you will be hearing more about our significant current work in:

  • aligning schools, tutors, volunteers and family on a coordinated approach to helping every child read by 3rd grade, including more support for efforts with targeted approaches to specific cultural communities
  • giving students more support to graduate by bringing schools together with our vast, but uncoordinated, network of out-of-school mentoring programs
  • getting more impact from local foundation and business support by using the Generation Next leadership table to find ways funders can better coordinate efforts around programs proven to work
  • launching a very exciting partnership between Minneapolis and St. Paul Schools, the United Way and Minnesota Philanthropy Partners, to use more data to see which out-of-school efforts are improving student performance

We will also be launching or expanding efforts in improving math performance, post secondary degree completion and social/emotional learning.

This is a large body of work.  Our team is up to the task, and we also know the crisis is serious enough that we must succeed.

It is also important to recognize that sometimes bringing about the broad, immediate change we need includes efforts that seem small and require hours of very detailed work.

That’s what we are seeing with our effort to screen every 3 year-old in Minneapolis and St. Paul. The idea is to identify issues early, connect families to the support they need to help their child and make sure every student who enters school is ready to learn.

Screening at three is especially important because that age is old enough for some issues to emerge and be identified, but young enough that those barriers can be addressed so the child can get the opportunities s/he needs to enter kindergarten fully prepared.

  • Think about how an early screening can help: the child whose screening shows the need for glasses, speech therapy, or counseling can get the support they need. Often the issue can be at least partly addressed before they enter school so the child walks into the classroom for the first time ready to learn.
  • Think about how one child’s life is changed if they get that support; then think there are about 8,000 3 year-olds in Minneapolis and St. Paul (about 80%) who have no record of being screened. Too many of them are kids of color, living in poverty.

Our generous community filled with resources should be able to do better–much better–but it isn’t easy because it requires connecting those resources to best support the children who will most benefit.

For the Generation Next team that means being part of many months of meetings talking about deep details: What questions should be asked in a doctor’s office, who should be referred where when an issue is discovered, how parents are engaged in the screening and follow-through process, and how information may be shared between organizations to insure children have access to all the opportunities available to support their development.  (At the end of this blog I’ve included some bullet points with details of the very important progress they have made.)

The importance of this work cannot be over-stated: of those children (0-5 years old) who are screened, about 20% (1,800 children) have issues not previously identified which might prevent them from being ready for kindergarten. Imagine if we screened 8,000 more children per year; we could potentially help an additional 3,500 children overcome barriers to readiness—EVERY YEAR!

In the middle of one of these meetings–after 20 minutes of nuanced debate about which piece of data gets reported on which form through which program–it is sometimes hard to step back and see how important this will be for the children of our community.  But I can guarantee the results of these meetings will eventually be responsible for hundreds, maybe thousands, more kids of color in poverty starting school better ready to learn every year.

It’s rare in life when you get to make a contribution like that and we should give a big thank you to some of the partners most involved in that effort: Cindy Hillyer and Ryan Strack/Minneapolis Public Schools, Margo Chresand and Nikole Logan/Saint Paul Public Schools, Meredith Martinez/Minnesota Department of Education, Katy Shalla-Liesak/Minnesota Department of Health, and many others, including early education centers, medical clinics and our Promise Neighborhood partners have devoted time and expertise to help make sure the action steps we develop together work to support the families they serve.  And a special thank you to Mary Brainerd from Health Partners who gave us early encouragement that tackling this issue was worth the exceptional effort that has been undertaken.

Think of all this remarkably detailed work as the “blocking and tackling” of closing the achievement gap.  Like the “blockers” in a football game, the job you do doesn’t get you the headline in the paper and you usually don’t even get to see the touchdown scored, but it could not have happened without you. And someday, in the (hopefully) not so distant future, when every child enters school ready to learn, we should look back on efforts like this and remember how we all learned to work better together to improve children’s lives.

Details of Screening Progress To-Date:

  • Train community partners to promote/support screening:
    • Develop and implement an Early Childhood Screening toolkit in programs working with 3 year-olds and their families, including early care and education programs and homeless shelter staff.  Generation Next is working with Minnesota Departments of Health and Education to develop Early Childhood Screening training for staff, who will work directly with families of three year olds to connect them with screening and support them in following through with appropriate services/opportunities.
  • Engage parents:
    • Work with Network partners to increase referrals to screening.  Action steps include supporting screening enhancements in Promise Neighborhoods, using United Way’s 2-1-1 system to provide screening information to parents of young children; and share screening information from the Community Health Improvement Partnership of Hennepin County (in multiple languages) with Network community partners.
  • Use data to define needs and strategies:
    • All efforts will include collection of data on specific indicators from participating programs to help monitor impact on children.
  • Expand effective approaches:
    • Expand the evidence-based Assuring Better Child Health and Development (ABCD) approach to increase the number of children receiving Early Childhood Screening and follow-through to resources.  ABCD creates efficient linkages between pediatric primary health care providers and other child and family service providers including school districts and Head Start programs.
    • Generation Next is currently working to expand the ABCD model and identify new partners to adopt the ABCD approach throughout Minneapolis and St. Paul.
  • Increase comprehensive screening by medical providers:
    • For example, Health Partners/Park Nicollet is expanding use of parent-report assessments of child development at well-child visits.


A special thanks to Jonathan May, who has been the Generation Next team lead on this project; Laurie Davis, our amazingly resourceful consultant on the project and Greater Twin Cities United Way’s Frank Forsberg, who launched Generation Next’s early childhood work when he was our Interim Executive Director and continues to play an extremely important role with us.

SIF 2015