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Metro and rural MN form collaborations and take action on opportunity gaps in education

Date Published: 08/21/2014

Author: Dane Smith

Former Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak and an impressive line-up of Twin Cities business executives, top school administrators and elected officials presided this week over a roll-out of three specific new education initiatives aimed at closing the opportunity disparities that threaten our state’s economic future.

The specific action agenda of this “Generation Next” partnership, for both Minneapolis and St. Paul,  will focus on universal early childhood screening by age 3, higher quality literacy tutoring for third-grade reading proficiency, and  post-secondary planning for all students by early high school.

This is basically the right stuff. And seriously difficult stuff.

Generation Next, like at least five other community partnerships up and running in rural and Greater Minnesota, is part of an encouraging statewide movement toward genuine community collaboration across all sectors, with a comprehensive birth-to-career strategy and  specific action plans, for realizing much more of all our children’s potential.

These groups, inspired by efforts in Cincinnati and spreading nationwide under the Strive Together network, represent at long last a more coordinated effort to harness often disjointed school district, governmental, nonprofit and philanthropic, and business efforts to close the unacceptable opportunity gaps in education for kids of color and those from low-income families.

Genuine collaboration is very hard and tedious work. The theories that explain the power of social capital and collective impact can also be rather theoretical and dry, not easily translated into inspirational mobilizing grass-roots messages.

But delightfully, the officialdom at the Generation Next roll-out was completely upstaged by one young Somali woman, Husna Ibrahim. She brought hundreds of attendees to a standing ovation with her animated and eloquent story about how social support and timely interventions from the non-profit group Project Success, working with her teachers and family, helped her realize a once impossible dream, admission to the University of Minnesota.

For many of us in the jam-packed Cowles Center at the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey School, Husna uttered the most memorable sentence of the day:  “I’m here to remind you, this is not a losing battle."

Recent reports from the Minnesota Department of Education (MDE), show slow but significant progress in reducing some of the race gaps on some measures. MDE Commissioner Brenda Cassellius reported at the roll-out that on one measure of reading proficiency, 10 percentage points had been shaved off the gap between black and white students in Minnesota in just the last few years.

And just as important, scores for white students appear to be improving too. It could be an affirmation of the principle that in education, as in economics, we all do better when we all do better.  And it’s important to remember that the all includes an increasingly diverse Minnesota outside of Minneapolis and St. Paul.

The Twin Cities’ media’s  domination of statewide news space, and Rybak’s name recognition and reputation,  is giving Generation Next the attention it deserves for bringing more partners together in a comprehensive and coordinated effort to deliver collective impact. Rybak’s persuasive explanation of the details and rationale behind the three-point plan in a Q & A interview with MinnPost reporter Beth Hawkins is a must-read.

But this kind of work really is becoming a statewide movement and no fewer than five rural and Greater Minnesota communities are now officially exploring or establishing membership in the Strive Together network. These include the Itasca Area Initiative for Student Success (centered in Grand Rapids and Itasca County); Partner for Student Success (in St. Cloud); Northfield Promise (in Northfield); Every Hand Joined (in Red Wing) and Austin Aspires (in Austin).

Several of them are as well along and as advanced as Generation Next in developing action plans, roadmaps and more meaningful measures of success for their local students, from early childhood readiness to the all-important end-zone,  post-secondary completion and career readiness.

The elected officials, business executives and Ph.D.s who are designing, implementing and partnering in these collaborative models could use some coaching from young Husna Ibrahim when it comes to communicating the essence of the movement.

But Strive Together Executive Director Jeff Edmondson, based in Cincinnati, gives it a good try in a recent essay for the Stanford Social Innovation Review.

“We feel confident that if we agree on core characteristics, we can stop the unfortunate trend of “spray and pray” — haphazardly launching programs and initiatives and hoping that good things will happen.  Instead, we can crystallize the meaning of collective impact and solve seemingly intractable problems … (The) aim is not to start new programs — we have plenty.

Instead, the network is focused on articulating how cross-sector partners can best work together to identify and build on what already works — and innovate as necessary — to support the unique needs of every child."

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A version of this column originally appeared in the St. Paul Legal Ledger Capitol Report on Thursday, August 21, 2014.


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