Minneapolis is one of the best cities in the U.S. noted for affordable housing, high employment and great education- coming on top as the most literate city in the country. However, one of the misguided facts of the Twin Cities is that Minnesota has the worst achievement gap between black and white students among the entire nation.
As the executive Director of MinnCan, Daniel Sellers believes every child can succeed academically if given access to a great public school. "Many times when people think about the achievement gap, they think about the gap between how white students are doing and students of color are doing on exams and other metrics, but the reality is there is another gap that exists which is how kids of color in Minnesota are doing verse kids of color around the country. And the reality is for kids of color, they do a lot worse in Minnesota than elsewhere around the country." In fact, Latinos of Minnesota have the lowest graduation rate among the country, followed by African American and Native American students.
The ultimate question- why are students of color in Minnesota so far behind the rest of the country? Sellers says "one of the big reasons is we haven't had to deal with some of the demographic shifts for a long time [since] Minnesota has typically been a monogamous society and now we start to see an influx of immigrants in new populations and we're just not ready and prepared to ensure all the kids have access to a great school."
Mauri Melander is the principle of an academically struggling inner-city school, devoting her every being to her kids and and their education. "These Kids, their level of love is almost at times unbearable. Their love is pretty intense and their love for us sometimes is a lot. It's a very familiar environment and we haven't arrived at all. We still definitely have room for growth, but we have made some nice gains."
Mauri Melander, Principle of Lucy Craft Laney Community School
Lucy Laney Community School is located in North Minneapolis- one of the most impoverished neighborhoods in the Twin Cities. Melander says the K-8 school serves between 600-700 kids, most of whom are African American and living at or under the poverty line.
Lucy Craft Laney Community School
As a third grade teacher at Lucy Craft Laney Community School, Tasha says teaching at an inner-city school is challenging "trying to figure out the balance of being a teacher, but yet being someone that's helping guide these children in other areas of their life." Melander explains the biggest hurtles that face inner-city school students is the way they are expected to perform in school today.
We have a very kind of let the strong survive approach to education and that's a huge challenge. Just because some of my students or even my own biological children cannot automatically ace this little subtraction test that you just gave her, doesn't mean she's a failure. She shouldn't internalize herself as one...because school is her first opportunity to get in the world.
The daily barriers the students face are an abundance. "Our students are battling hunger, their battling sleep, their battling living with a variety of extended family moving from house to house or shelter to shelter. Not having them have a stable home environment really affects the way they come to school," says Tasha. She explains some students can handle their personal challenges, but others take them out at school because they have to let it go somewhere.
Along with some of the other schools in Minneapolis, Lucy Laney has met the challenges of the achievement gap. Last year, the students tested the lowest in the whole state. But Melander says they've always had among the lowest test scores in the state. "When we analyze the data and we identify this achievement gap, we have always said that African American children in Minnesota that live in poverty have always been some of the lowest performing, right down there with Native American children that live in Minnesota, that live in poverty. So if you have a school that has pretty much all African American students that live in poverty, it shouldn't be that surprising that that schools test scores look like that cell groups test scores."
Leading Low Income Families to Success
In Minnesota, 62 percent of black students attend high poverty schools, compared to 10 percent of white students. Daniel says MinnCan works to close the gap between white and black students by raising expectations for all kids even when many believe their chances are slim to none. "I think there's this belief that all kids of color can't succeed, that they just face too many barriers or challenges whether it's at home or with poverty or with homelessness, that we sort of start to think that they can't succeed. We just know that's not true. We know that when kids are given the opportunity to be successful, they rise to the occasion."
In the 2013-2014 school year, white students outscored their black and Hispanic classmates in state math and reading tests more than 30 percent. In the last five years, the gap has only gotten worse. Sonda Samuels, the president of Northside Achievement Zone, says Minnesota has very high standards of education, but it's the high standards that has widen the achievement gap.
Sonda Samuels, the president of Northside Achievement Zone
The Northside Achievement Zone, known as NAZ, is dedicated to closing the achievement gap and end generational poverty in North Minneapolis. "The gap is not about the kids, but it's about the adults in the system, [which] includes me, includes the teacher and includes the districts and schools and parents." Samuel says the gap doesn't just affect African Americans, but also affects Latinos, American Indians and Asians. "We do so well by our white students- middle class and upper class and we do so poorly by our low income communities of color and that's really what it is about," says Samuel. "There's not an expectation that kids born in this zip code, 55411, can actually succeed because they have so much against them and that's rubbish."
NAZ works with low income students of color like Jaylon and his brother Kevon in efforts of eliminating the achievement gap. After joining NAZ, Jaylon and Kevon turned their academics around. Both brothers said their mentors work with them one-on-one to "do things better in a different way" and not only helped them with their academics, but social and economically problems as well. Their mentor Ron says working with these students is a passion of his. "Coming from where I came from, you know, I asked god to put me on a platform where I could reach out to young men, just reach out to my community."
And perhaps one of the most unique factors about NAZ is that it is a promise neighborhood, a federal designation through the Department of Education geared to improve the educational and developmental outcomes of children and youth in the most distressed communities across America. The ultimate goal of a promise neighborhood is to transform these communities into prosperous areas through improved outcomes. "There are 12 of us around the country. The premise is that we would have great schools in the middle of our community surrounded by strong family and community support. We make a promise to our children that they'll have those things," says Samuels.
Closing the Achievement Gap
Today, there is a community-wide effort between educators, state leaders and organizations working towards the Minnesota goal of cutting the achievement gap in half by 2017.
One of Lucy Craft Laney Community School's strategies to battle the achievement gap is by adding two license teachers per classroom. "We don't have hundreds of years to reverse all the trends and patterns that have happened up until this time, so what can we expedite? The most obvious is you have two license teachers in the room so you can do things like differentiate in a different way. You've got your kids that got it the first time you said it and are ready to go and [one] license teacher can take them and push them even further. And then you got your kids who were like 'huh, I didn't get what you just said?', then you have another licensed teacher to push them even further," says Melander.
An additional teacher in each classroom is also necessary to council many of Lucy Laney's students who deal with the daily struggles of living in low-income, high crime communities. "When you're dealing with stuff like, you know, people shooting when your walking your kids to the bus, that can actually be very disturbing." Melander goes on to say that the benefit of two teachers per classroom is like having "your pocket partner you can vent too" and "someone they could walk this journey with."
At NAZ, the organization works side by side with families before birth to college. "We get our children on a college trajectory while they're in the womb," says Samuels. One of their unique programs, College Bound Babies, is for parents who have children from ages 0-3 years offering a curriculum to get their children ready for college by first being ready for Kindergarten. Through the program, parents learn all about brain development, positive discipline and the importance of communicating with your child. "What we're doing is coming beside the parents who themselves were not believed in...parents learn what it takes and the babies start believing, [the] parents believe it, [they] have an expectation, your community has an expectation," says Samuels.
Like NAZ, MinnCan's model for change is through their long term pillars, beginning with early education. Daniel says changes starts with all children having access to high quality early education experiences; He says it is vital that every child, k-12, is learning from an excellent educator. And in order for the achievement gap to close, it's essential to hold ourselves and school systems accountable for outcomes such as graduation rates and test scores."We believe there is not a single solution to closing the achievement gap, but through a combination of factors to start to break down the barriers that are preventing all kids from being successful."