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Learning is a local thing, as Minnesota initiatives show

Date Published: 08/05/2015

Author: Dane Smith

The best ideas and movements bubble up. This can be seen in education’s next wave, and our state is leading the way.


A century ago, all across the Midwest, residents of one town after another decided their community needed a high school. In time this regional movement grew into a national movement, and before long every city in America, large and small, offered free access to secondary education.

By assuring that every child in town would be entitled to more-advanced learning and a diploma, communities, on their own, created a system that produced the world’s most educated workforce, while adding vitality and viability to their own local economies.

Bestselling author and political scientist Robert Putnam told this story at the Aspen Ideas Festival this summer to remind the nation’s opinion leaders that great education movements typically don’t flow from Washington, D.C., down, but rather from local populations up.

Best known for his 2000 book “Bowling Alone,” which laments a modern decline in community spirit and social capital, Putnam is calling for another grass-roots education movement. In his latest book, “Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis, “he attributes racial and income disparities in educational outcomes in large part to community neglect, and to an inability to see all the children in the “village” as “our kids.”

With impressive data and in-depth interviews of real folks in real towns, Putnam reveals how huge numbers of kids on the deprived side of the inequality crisis are not getting access to the quality experiences and social support they need — especially outside of school. That means well before kindergarten and after 12th grade — and before and after school hours.

Here’s some good news. Minnesota, a leader a century ago in local education investment and improvement, is already, once again, ahead of other states in figuring all this out. Without much media attention, communities across the state are coming together and responding with what could be described as a successor to the high school movement, focused beyond the 12th grade on postsecondary credentials and workforce readiness for a fast-changing economy.

These new local partnerships have named themselves to reflect the principles of total community involvement in success for all the kids, in every segment of the pipeline from birth to career, in much the way Putnam prescribes.

The community partnerships include: Austin Aspires (Austin); the Itasca Area Initiative for Student Success (Grand Rapids and surrounding north-central communities); Partner for Student Success (St. Cloud); Every Hand Joined (Red Wing); Northfield Promise (Northfield), and Generation Next (in both Minneapolis and St. Paul).

Generation Next, led by former Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak, works closely with two separate and independent inner-city neighborhood partnerships that are getting results with a higher dosage of collaborative wraparound support — the Northside Achievement Zone in Minneapolis and the St. Paul Promise Neighborhood.

Graphic by Mark Boswell

Each of these entities is a highly organized local collaboration, with strong commitments from all players in the community. Among the key players are businesses and other employers; educators, from child-care centers to local colleges; parents and teachers; children themselves, and public and nonprofit social service agencies. Each group is developing its own custom-made local plan and “road map” for how to provide support that begins at birth and drives for measurable success at key junctures, such as third-grade reading and eighth-grade math, with a new goal line of postsecondary credentials and career readiness. A high regard for data, accountability and rigor, and action, suffuses the partnerships.

Here are some scenes from this movement:

Each of the entities above is part of either the national Promise Neighborhood network or the StriveTogether national network. The latter is headquartered in Cincinnati and has spread in recent years to more than 60 communities across the nation. A Star Tribune front-page story last year summarized impressive gains on graduation rates and test scores in Cincinnati. And StriveTogether’s website provides an abundance of material showing how communities can get started with their own collaborations, along with examples of success, from Tacoma, Wash., to Milwaukee.

Already, about 15 percent of Minnesota’s young people — roughly 222,000 out of 1.4 million youths under the age of 20 — now live in regions served by these urban and rural partnerships. Explorations of the Strive model, or more holistic frameworks with postsecondary education success as the target, are also underway in other communities, from Burnsville to Brainerd, from Worthington to Grand Marais.

The movement already has captured the attention of Minnesota policymakers, winning praise and support from Republicans and Democrats, and from rural and urban lawmakers. The Legislature agreed in the 2015 education bill to invest almost $6 million over the next two years for operations and pilot funding for these partnerships, an important breakthrough for the model.

Minnesota’s emergence as a leader in incubating and supporting these partnerships also will be at center stage during the next national conference of the StriveTogether network. That gathering will be held in Minneapolis Oct. 6-8, and should attract considerable attention to Minnesota’s movement from all over the United States.

Business support of this movement is substantial and invaluable. Key partners include Target and General Mills and the United Way in both the Twin Cities and in St. Cloud.

The Harvard Business School last year published a paper, as part of its U.S. Competitiveness Project, praising the model under the headline “Reinventing the Local Education Ecosystem.”

Closing educational opportunity gaps — as economic inequality and racial disparities actually worsen — is proving to be even harder than it looks. Top-down efforts, exemplified by the federal No Child Left Behind law, appear to be coming up short. But initial signs of progress from these local partnerships, trying many things at once, are encouraging and inspiring. They are embracing a new level of urgency and rigor in creating partnerships that get beyond talk to action at many levels.

Rybak says: “I often get asked, `What’s the one thing you need to close the achievement gap?’ I say back, ‘What’s the one ingredient you need to bake a cake?’ One ingredient, or even two or three, is not enough. There is a recipe to ensure that every child thrives. And we need to show discipline in raising our kids so they get every one of all the ingredients, and in the right amounts.”

In the words of Putnam at Aspen, local ownership and energy will be crucial to any successful movement. “It’s got to come from ordinary people,” he says, “in ordinary towns across America."


Dane Smith is the president of Growth and Justice, a public-policy organization that seeks to reduce economic and racial inequality in Minnesota.

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