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Personal relationships help close the achievement gap

Date Published: 08/26/2013

Author: Dane Smith, President


Paris Carruthers, left, and Shanell McCoy of Youthprise are facilitating conversations between Twin Cities youth and the Generation Next partnership.

Shanell McCoy, 19, and Paris Carruthers, 22, are emerging Twin Cities leaders who have been researching what youth think about their education system and about an adult society that constantly worries about the achievement gap but too seldom listens to those personally affected by the gap.

“The conversation gets complicated, but people are overthinking this,” McCoy says. “I think it’s as simple as communication, listening, and more and better personal relationships with caring adults. Too many decisions about us are made without us.”

“The school system is so rushed — to teach something you will remember for a test and then forget — that there’s no time for relationships,” Carruthers says. She adds: “The people on the hill [her term for the educational and social establishment] keep saying it’s a problem and sometimes only make it worse.”

Their insights come from facilitating meetings this summer with older teens and youth for the Generation Next initiative, a promising new partnership focused on improving student success across the Twin Cities, complementing efforts already underway in some of the most disadvantaged neighborhoods.

Generation Next is building a detailed cradle-to-career road map by bringing together students and parents, as well as education, community, philanthropic, government and business leaders to identify and adopt successful programs that are proven to work. This collective action model, now being adopted in many metropolitan areas across the nation, as well as rural communities in Minnesota, activates a powerful network of people committed to reaching well-defined goals.

McCoy and Carruthers were involved in helping one of several “action networks” focused on early literacy and college and career readiness. With the help of professional facilitators, dozens of action network members in Minneapolis and St. Paul will establish charters and action plans focused on closing gaps in those key areas, in ways that have demonstrated their effectiveness.

“The action networks are where grassroots community members take ownership of identifying solutions for the achievement gap,” says Frank Forsberg, an executive with Greater Twin Cities United Way who helped launch Generation Next and is currently serving as the group’s executive director. “Their intimate knowledge of their communities will be a key to understanding how we can change the dynamic that currently keeps so many students from reaching their full potential.”

McCoy and Carruthers are budding change agents at the same time they are trying to navigate a complex higher-ed system and a career launch for themselves. They both work part-time for Youthprise, a creative nonprofit that seeks to innovate and improve the quality of youth development outside the classroom.

Their savvy on the subject also comes from their own lives in the most diverse Twin Cities neighborhoods, urban and suburban. McCoy is from Brooklyn Park, a suburb with a high and growing percentage of minority students, and Carruthers has lived all over the Twin Cities, in Minneapolis, St. Paul, and both northern and southern suburbs. McCoy is interested in a marketing career and is a student at Minneapolis Community and Technical College; Carruthers is pursuing accounting, and returns this fall to St. Paul College.

A summary of youth input for Generation Next swirls around the term “personal relationships,” including a more holistic approach to student success and human development. Learners thrive when they connect personally with teachers, mentors, tutors, out-of-school leaders — and not so much when they are drilled to distraction to get the right answers on high-stakes standardized tests.

McCoy and Carruthers and other Youthprise leaders reviewed the youth input and composed 10 recommendations, which include:

The summary did not absolve youth of responsibility for their own lives. The report notes “the youth felt that there was a level of accountability missing” in some young people. “Some circumstances, environments, influences and setbacks make it hard to succeed in school; but it is up to the individual to create their future.”

A general theme of the findings was that teachers and the entire community had to be connected and focused on improving social conditions and social infrastructure, so that students are supported both in school and out of school.

“[Youth] thought more personable teachers would help [students] want to learn and engage. Feelings of teachers coming in for a paycheck… were prominent.” And: “The youth believed that everyone needed to be accountable for creating that community in and out of school to create a positive future for themselves and for the younger generations.”

“These are the kinds of conversations we need to be having,” Forsberg says. “The next critical step is identifying the programs that can most effectively achieve results.”

Meanwhile, nothing dispels despair about “the gap” quite as effectively as a few hours of quality time with young people striving to help close it themselves. In addition to having great conversations with McCoy and Carruthers, I felt lucky to be involved recently at two events in Minneapolis, a graduation ceremony at Minneapolis City Hall for the Urban Scholars program, and the 10th anniversary of the acclaimed internship program known as Step Up, in a joyous celebration at the Guthrie Theater.

The beaming young high school students, whose lives have been transformed by Step Up’s high-quality work experience, were easily the stars of the show. Almost as inspiring were the program’s co-founders, Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak and US Bank CEO Richard Davis, who at one point summed up the secret to the program’s success as, you guessed it, the “personal relationships” built between Step Up students and employers who are often amazed by their skill and creativity.

McCoy and Carruthers, and the youth informing Generation Next, seem to be saying exactly the same thing.


A version of this column originally appeared in the St. Paul Legal Ledger Capitol Report on Monday, August 26, 2013. 

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