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Inspiring models of community engagement in greater Minnesota

Date Published: 01/26/2012

Author: Dane Smith, President


In the lakes-and-woods landscape surrounding Grand Rapids in north central Minnesota,  a wide array of community leaders have banded together with seven school districts in several counties to chart a comprehensive road map toward improved student success, beginning with stronger early childhood education and going all the way through to career preparation.

In and around our farm-belt food-processing centers of Worthington and Willmar, civic activists and school officials are beginning to get national attention for their success at accepting and integrating an increasingly diverse population and improving outcomes for Latino and other nonwhite students.

In the Brainerd Lakes area and on the shore of Lake Superior in Grand Marais and wider Cook County, business owners and educators have come together and found new ways to get the postsecondary credentials and job skills that the local economy needs into the hands of more local residents who can fill those jobs.

These are among the many bright spots I discovered in researching and writing a recently released report, “Whole Towns Coming Together for All Students”. The report documents promising progress by rural and greater Minnesota communities that are focused in new ways on helping all their children succeed, as they grapple with economic challenges and welcome increasing racial diversity.

Getting the entire village involved in educating and preparing all the children for productive lives was a tradition for our original residents, the Native American nations. Pioneering Euro-Americans also invested heavily in universal and free education, following the Land Ordinance of 1785 dictate that a section of land in every township must be set aside for a public school.

Time magazine noted, in that iconic 1973 cover story about our “State That Works,” that our superior performance on economic and quality-of-life measures could be linked to a “near-worship for education and a high civic tradition in Minnesota life.”

An overwhelming multipartisan consensus exists that this tradition, this education imperative, should remain our basic formula for economic growth and vitality. The Governor’s Workforce Development Council cites a highly respected Georgetown University study pointing to the need for more Minnesotans to complete postsecondary education to meet our economy’s workforce needs. Business and philanthropic leaders agree that improving and aligning workforce skills is a top priority.

So which models work best?

Any constructive interest and involvement by community leaders in education outcomes is probably helpful, but a review of what is happening in rural and greater Minnesota finds particular promise in the efforts happening in Itasca County and in St. Cloud.

Both areas are developing something that can be called the Strive model, named for successful efforts in the metropolitan Cincinnati area and now under way in about a dozen other urban areas across the nation. This model happens to be in sync with the Growth & Justice education framework, Smart Investments in Minnesota’s Students, which outlines a strategy of comprehensive intervention and measurement, from the earliest years to postsecondary completion, using evidence-tested and cost-effective methods and programs.

In Itasca County and elsewhere, the crucial ingredient is development of a road map that sets out specific desired measurements of success from birth to career launch. The Strive model also develops and assigns networks of stakeholders, from parents’ groups to social service agencies to teachers and schools, to achieve the results. In Cincinnati and northern Kentucky, Strive leaders have reported progress on 40 of 54 such indicators.

A multidistrict, Strive-like model is being studied for the Twin Cities metropolitan area, with initial impetus from the African-American Leadership Forum and the University of Minnesota’s College Readiness Consortium, an effort that drew high praise in a recent Star Tribune editorial.

“The number of programs [focused on closing the achievement gap] speaks to the widespread community interest in the problem, but it tells us nothing about quality and effectiveness,’’ the editorial stated. “That’s why a relatively new push to better coordinate all the programs is welcome.”

The incessant casting about for easy answers (such as high-stakes testing) or scapegoats (such as teachers unions) for lagging student success needs to be replaced by a more comprehensive and holistic cradle-to-career approach.

And it’s hard to find a more eloquent champion of this idea than Diane Ravitch, a veteran of President George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind initiative who has evolved toward a more progressive outlook. In her book, “The Death and Life of the Great American School System,” Ravitch summarized the ingredients for bringing total community engagement to closing the gaps.

Children who are disadvantaged by inequities “need extra resources, including preschool and medical care,” Ravitch wrote. “They need small classes, where they will get extra teacher time … Their families need additional supports, such as coordinated social services that help them to improve their education … While the school itself cannot do these things, it should be part of a web of public and private agencies that buttress families.”

And citing the work of testing experts Ina V.S. Mullis and Michael O. Martin of Boston College, Ravitch concludes that the way forward for student success lies in “a strong curriculum; experienced teachers; effective instruction; willing students; adequate resources; and a community that values education” [emphasis added].


A version of this column originally appeared in the St. Paul Legal Ledger Capitol Report on Thursday, January 26, 2012.

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