Ahzaneia Cook sits at a low table finger-counting her way through after-school math problems, figuring simple sums and then coloring a flower to match the number.
The 5-year-old doesn’t know it, but she’s part of the most ambitious effort yet to improve the academic achievement and economic fortunes of mostly poor, minority children and their families in Minneapolis.
Cook’s family is one of more than 600 enrolled in the Northside Achievement Zone, a multiyear, multimillion-dollar effort that provides help with issues including housing, jobs and counseling services designed to help stabilize family circumstances that can undermine educational outcomes. The ultimate goal is to send more kids to college.
NAZ is modeled, in part, on the famed Harlem Children’s Zone in New York City, which serves more than 8,000 children and 6,000 adults and has been credited with boosting school readiness and academic achievement since its creation in 1997.
So far, 611 families with 1,514 children are enrolled in the Minneapolis program. Its goal: 1,000 families and 2,500 children by the end of 2015.
Although there’s limited early evidence of improvement for the “scholars” enrolled in NAZ, it’s too early to know if the program will pay off with the game-changing culture of achievement that the zone hopes to instill in a 234-block swath of some of Minnesota’s toughest neighborhoods.
NAZ has already retooled how it recruits families and is seeking longer-term funding. The current $28 million in federal funds will carry the program through 2016. It needs results to attract that funding if it is to fulfill the long-term goal of getting today’s babies into college.
“I’m here to also remind you that this is the beginning of a process that takes time, and a community that doesn’t have time to wait. Right? You all got that contradiction there?” Geoffrey Canada, founder of the Harlem Zone, told NAZ staff members last fall.
Jayden Myles is one of 14 NAZ “navigators,” most stationed in nine North Side district, charter, alternative, and parochial schools. He’ll ultimately work with about 40 of the 126 NAZ students at the Nellie Stone Johnson school in the Hawthorne neighborhood of Minneapolis.
The families enrolled in NAZ also are served by 20 “connectors,” who are stationed in schools, with nonprofit partners and at the main NAZ office at Broadway and Penn Avenues where they help the families find the services they need.
Definitive proof that NAZ is getting things right won’t come for years, when a program that didn’t gear up in earnest until mid-2012 knows what share of enrolled children have completed college. Moreover, NAZ’s data so far covers limited numbers of students. Perhaps the most compelling improvement to date is that 59 percent of the 32 children from NAZ families who entered kindergarten last fall met readiness benchmarks for literacy and numeracy. That compares to 35 percent for 203 non-NAZ children who live in the zone and entered kindergarten last fall. But state reading and math tests results for older NAZ-enrolled students don’t yet register the same improvement.
‘I want to get into college’
Tamara Campbell knows the changes she has seen in the oldest of her five children. Matthew, 17, a junior at North High School, got a summer job through the city last year with help from his NAZ connector.
“My son is hyped,” she said. “He’s like, ‘I want to get into college,’ ” she said, and he’s taken his ACT. If Matthew completes college, it will be a step up for his family and his future. Campbell, 36, works as a custodian at Target Center, a job she’s held for 13 years.
She heard about NAZ from a woman recruiting on the Route 5 bus, but hesitated to call the number on a NAZ flier until her back was against the wall as she struggled to find day care for her toddler. Now, that child is enrolled in the highly rated Northside Child Development Center, thanks to a federal child care scholarship awarded to NAZ.
As NAZ has matured, it has changed its recruiting strategies. Instead of the door-to-door solicitation used during the 150-family pilot stage program, it now finds participants mainly through referrals from its anchor schools and community agency partners.
Those include parenting classes that emphasize such skills as teaching a parent to read effectively to a preschooler, help finding housing, high-quality child care and behavioral counseling, and after-school and summer programs for grade-schoolers that are expanding to upper graders.
To enroll in NAZ, a family must have children and live in the designated blocks. In recognition of the area’s high housing turnover, people can remain eligible if they move as long as they remain on the North Side. Recently NAZ was awarded $800,000 in state rent subsidies to help its families avoid eviction.
But even as NAZ gears up for its full 1,000-family enrollment by the end of 2015, it faces challenges. One is racial balance. NAZ noted in its federal application that residents of its zone are 47 percent black, 20 percent white, 18 percent Asian 8 percent Latino, and 7 percent other. But 90 percent of the households enrolled in NAZ are black families. “Typically it’s the African-American families that are suffering the most,” said Michelle Martin, NAZ chief operating officer.
Another challenge is money. A program that promises long-term help for parents to get their newborns to college needs a long-term commitment of money.
NAZ is seeking $1.1 million in state funding this legislative session, but CEO Sondra Samuels estimates the program will need $8 million annually from all sources to maintain full enrollment after the federal money is gone.
But success depends in part on convincing funders that NAZ is producing transformative results both for families and an entire community at a scale beyond what it can show to date.
The trick is that for children like Ahzaneia, NAZ defines success as getting kids to college. She would be in the high school graduating class of 2026 — a long time to wait for results.