Shared Strength: Education is the Key to Unlock Poverty
Perceptions of North Minneapolis are often negative and troubled. More than 67,000 people live in the community comprised of diverse ends of the spectrum: wealth and poverty, stability and insecurity, school success and high dropout rates. Media reports consistently chronicle incidents of violent crime and state statistics attest that it is a struggling community on many levels – education chief among them. The achievement gap at North High School is one of the highest in the country, where only 9 percent of students passed the proficiency test in math and 19 percent in reading. Recent news about possibly closing this 122-year-old institution highlights the fragmentation of the community – over the years several of North’s feeder schools have been closed and many families then opted to enroll their children in suburban or area charter schools. The building that was designed to hold 1,700 children has just 265 today.
A community with these assets and disadvantages is challenged to create a cohesive environment where individuals and families can thrive. And that’s where the Northside Achievement Zone
“Right now, we can say that demography will determine destiny,” says Sondra Samuels, chief executive officer, “but we’re going to change outcomes for kids that stay in the Zone. Our goal is to work in partnerships with schools and community organizations to bring these students up to grade level and prepare them to attend four year colleges. If you educate a kid, you impact poverty.”
She credits Geoffrey Canada, founder of the very successful Harlem Children’s Zone
project, with the inspiration to create a similar program here in Minnesota. After reading his book – Fist, Stick, Knife, Gun –
which examined violence in the urban core, Sondra saw a lot of parallels to what people are facing in North Minneapolis and determined that education was the lever that could drive positive outcomes.
To improve educational achievement, the Northside Achievement Zone, or NAZ, focuses on family engagement as the key. A group of tenacious individuals called NAZ Connectors go door-to-door to reach out to families throughout the community. “We can say the village has arrived,” says Sondra. “We can help you get your kids to college.”
The “village” is comprised of more than 60 organizations including local schools and several community organizations that provide a network of coordinated services. Each family creates an achievement plan: an assessment that identifies gaps in several areas such as housing, health and employment. The families can then connect to one of partner agencies that provide free or affordable services. Because all the organizations have come together to align their services, there is a thread that stays with the family, helping them to identify what they need next and who can help. In addition, school leaders from both the public district, public charter and parochial schools are meeting to construct a ‘no excuses’ system that will work for all students: principals are meeting monthly, visiting each other’s schools, and discussing what great instruction looks like.
Collaboration plays a vital role in this holistic approach. All the partners share a vision of what the future can bring and are holding each other accountable. And perhaps it is a daunting task. The stakes are high, the risk is great and the funding is elusive. But as Sondra says, if it’s being done in other parts of the country, why not in Minneapolis? “All we’ve been doing is touching a piece of the elephant, and never able to get our arms around it,” says Sondra, “but by locking arms and working together, we can end violence, end poverty and end hopelessness.”
The PEACE Foundation, now doing business as the Northside Achievement Zone, is an organization that sees education as a permanent pathway to ending violence in North Minneapolis. Their long-term goal is to ensure that every child who lives in the “Zone” – a 255-block section of North Minneapolis – is ready for college.