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Start seeing our students’ successes

Date Published: 10/17/2013

Author: Dane Smith, President


Not far from the site of a recent gang attack by a few young people on the East Side of St. Paul, a powerfully uplifting event last week brought focus to trends that are far more significant and representative of our capital city’s youth.

Dozens of smiling high schoolers dressed in sharp uniforms lined up outside of Washington Technology Magnet School to greet hundreds of school district tutors, parents, donors and various supporters who attended the annual St. Paul Public Schools Foundation breakfast.

Attendees heard about successes across the city, involving thousands of public school students from St. Paul’s most racially diverse and economically distressed neighborhoods. Blaming parents and kids who make “bad choices’’ is always convenient. But despite increasingly severe hardships imposed on their parents by an unfair socio-economic system — one that increasingly provides less and less to those in the middle and on the bottom, and lavishly rewards those at the very top — many kids and schools are coping and succeeding heroically.

One of the featured schools was the East Side’s Farnsworth Aerospace School (pre-K to 8), which offers mind-boggling opportunities and real-life exposure to high-tech learning that ranges from field trips to NASA sites to working on their own donated aircraft from Federal Express.

At the breakfast, each table featured four or five tent cards with stories about how individual students have gained months and years on achievement levels, from just a few hours apiece of individual tutoring.

The district, which at 39,000 students is Minnesota’s largest, reports these kinds of broad statistical progress:

These numbers are not good enough; lots more improvement has to happen — in the Twin Cities and in a more diverse rural Minnesota, too. We will see more bad news as we struggle to improve. The widening inequality that produces joblessness, homelessness and a declining standard of living for too many Minnesota families will continue to produce the kind of anger and desperation that results in violence and lawlessness and failure in school.

But progress that falls short of perfection must be recognized, celebrated and replicated.

Fault lines have opened up nationally and in Minnesota between people of good will who support public education but disagree about how to further improve student success and reduce our unacceptable opportunity gaps. These disagreements, largely over the extent to which teachers and their unions are responsible for the gaps, are important and can’t be easily papered over.

A more positive focus on what’s working, with the implied obligation to do more of that and less of what is not working, might just be in the interests of students themselves. One initiative designed to focus on what’s working has been the Minneapolis Foundation’s RESET initiative, which draws attention to some rather amazing success with low-income kids of color at Minneapolis’s Harvest Prep school and the Hiawatha Academies.

RESET is an acronym for five strategies and attitudes that produce these results: real-time use of testing data to help kids (and not just rank them), expectations and not excuses, strong leadership and more discretion for principals, effective teaching, and more time on task, with additional days in school and shorter summer breaks.

We are also beginning to see the needle move with more comprehensive social supports and community involvement provided by two programs working in two of our most distressed urban areas, the Northside Achievement Zone in Minneapolis and the Promise Neighborhood in St. Paul’s Frogtown.

Meanwhile, in rural areas and small-towns from Itasca County to Austin on the Iowa border, broad community coalitions with philanthropic and business support are beginning to organize around improving student success, with well-defined cradle-to-career roadmaps and measurable outcomes. The notion that improved student success and gap-closing is everybody’s job, not just the responsibility of teachers and school administrators, is catching hold, from border to border in Minnesota.

In the Twin Cities, this comprehensive roadmapping is under development by an ambitious coalition called Generation Next, in which both St. Paul and Minneapolis school districts are involved. Equally important, these programs involve a broad base of philanthropic, business and community leadership.

Summing up the over-arching importance of this road-mapping strategy recently, Pam Costain, executive director of AchieveMpls, had this to say: “This work requires concerted community engagement with a wide range of stakeholders — listening deeply to what they have to say, recognizing the larger social and economic issues impacting our young people, communicating the high stakes involved in career and college readiness in our globalized economy, and providing opportunities for community members to respond and engage with young people as volunteers, employers, mentors, funders and advocates for strong public schools and student success.’’ That’s a mouthful, but it captures how big and broad the challenge truly is.

Costain, in a separate commentary for MinnPost, urged a truce in the wars between teachers and reformers, a call to “quit pointing fingers at one another and focus instead on what we need to do to provide better outcomes for children.’’

Accentuating those positive outcomes where they are happening will build confidence and momentum for more success, and here’s a suggestion for a new mantra. Some years ago the bumper sticker “Start Seeing Motorcycles’’ was initiated to draw attention to the vulnerability of smaller vehicles on the streets and highways.

A similar phrase, “Start Seeing Student Success,’’ might help provide the sustained energy and optimism that this gap-closing work requires.


A version of this column originally appeared in the St. Paul Legal Ledger Capitol Report on Thursday, October 17, 2013.

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