The Best of 2013: Greater Minnesota

By Nicholas Banovetz, deputy director of MinnCAN: The Minnesota Campaign for Achievement Now

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In the 19th century, our country created its first public schools. In the 20th century, we created enough schools to serve every child. Now, in the 21st century, our opportunity is to ensure every U.S. child has access to world-leading public schools.

It’s a big charge for our country–and for Minnesota. While our achievement gaps and graduation rates have tracked little in the right direction, our state is no doubt up to the challenge. From increasing access to high-quality pre-K for our youngest learners to helping advance the teaching profession through educator evaluations, we have much to be proud of.

But that was exactly it–a Greater Minnesota exuding an optimistic, even boastful take on education reforms. My boss, Daniel Sellers, and I traveled to 18 communities in the North Star State this fall as part of our Road to Success listening tour. While engaging with teachers, administrators, parents and community leaders, the interactions and conversations we observed were refreshingly candid and civil, and grounded in research and best practice. Oh, and very much focused on kids.

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Minnesotans wore us out. We’re exhausted from the journey and thoughtful exchanges, but recharged and armed with dozens of ideas for our state policymakers to consider.

We also caught a breath of fresh air from the toxic discourse often found in the metro. The largely outstate communities that encompassed our tour exercise diplomacy, collaboration, and achieve major solutions for their students.

How these exchanges came about
We embarked on Road to Success this past fall (and if you haven’t done a statewide tour, take note that nearly a month on the road is grueling). Our objectives:
1. See great educators at work in many of Minnesota’s most successful schools.
2. Learn from educators and community leaders what needs to change at the capitol if we’re serious about improving public education for every child.

We selected our 18 stops based on schools that are beating the odds for kids underserved and marginalized. (We used 2012 MCA data–the test is only one measure of effectiveness, but served as a starting point.)

For each stop, we engaged with teachers, school and district leaders, parents and, when available, local chambers of commerce, rotaries, foundations and United Ways. Nearly all of these groups expressed eagerness to connect in-person, making for really long, fruitful days.

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Many educators are refining a system to achieve stronger student outcomes.
In the conversations we had with teachers and administrators, here are the themes that surfaced from one community to the next:
• As noted above, community conversations are positive and student-focused
• Adoption of data-driven instruction and strong assessments to effectively track kids across the continuum
• Early and immediate interventions
• High-quality early education
• Schools want flexibilities as to how they meet state standards (e.g., tailoring a wood shop class to fulfill a math standard)
• Post-secondary isn’t just a four-year degree–we need a broader, more accurate definition of what the workforce needs
• Expose at-risk and middle-achieving students to college-level rigor and they’re more likely to complete high school and enroll in post-secondary
• Teachers and principals are excited over educator evaluations
• Schools can beat the odds, but it requires community-wide buy-in and mindset shifts (and starting with teachers is a must)
• Unfortunately, outstate communities feel it’s a rarity when the Twin Cities includes them in discussions on best practices and ideas for improvement

Zigzagging Minnesota, unearthing success stories
Kudos to the hundreds of people who spent time with us on Road to Success. They showed us their schools, introduced us to their classrooms, let us present to Rotaries and Chambers. But most valuable was their feedback and ideas on how public education can work better. This includes, as noted right above, what needs to change at the capitol.

The educators and community leaders in these cities are the ones who rightfully deserve the gravitas here–the best of 2013–for beating the odds and doing right by their students:
• Cloquet
• Grand Rapids
• Deer River
• Brainerd
• Verndale
• Fergus Falls
• Ashby
• Bemidji
• Laporte
• Detroit Lakes
• Redwood
• Morgan
• Marshall
• Tracy
• Cottage Grove
• Northfield
• Mounds View
• New Brighton

Perhaps a few of these cities are new to you, but we promise their lies a great school success story. Our conversations were rich–ideas and opportunities pouring from each and every direction. We look forward to expanding on these conversations and the tour themes as we move forward. In the meantime, learn more about our travels at www.minncan.org/road-success-2013.

While early into the 21st century, Minnesota is already collectively steadfast in securing meaningful changes to strengthen public education for all. As for the rest of the century, make way for the next great wave of public education for Minnesota.

SIF 2015