In Minneapolis, mayoral attention to city kids and their education has never been higher. But it’s not new. Three decades ago, the city’s longest-serving mayor, Don Fraser, was already elevating concern about Minneapolis children to the top of his agenda.
Fraser ended a 40-year career in elective office in 1993; today is his 90th birthday. But he never stopped searching and advocating for policies that would give his city’s youngest residents a brighter future — or sharing his ideas with the public. I collected a few of them in a pre-birthday conversation:
Q: When you were in Congress in the 1960s and ’70s, you were known for your work on human rights and political process reform. Why did you decide to focus on children as mayor?
A: We were starting to see some worrisome results. Our initial response wasn’t as focused or as intense as it now needs to be.
At first, we weren’t so much focused on trying to boost educational outcomes. The superintendent of schools (the late Richard Green) asked the city to help provide better access to health services for kids. We agreed that the city would finance in-school health functions for three or four of the high schools and that the school district would finance those services for the others.
Q: What inspired you to shift your attention to early childhood education?
A: There’s more known about early brain development today than was then. But it was already evident that kids growing up in poor areas of the city needed more support than they were getting.
Scotty Gillette, who was working in our office, devised a plan for connecting with parents in those areas and explaining what they needed to do to work with their kids, to get them ready for school. That was the start of the Way to Grow program. Jim Renier, the CEO at Honeywell, was very active and helped us a great deal.
Q: Way to Grow has been active in Minneapolis for 25 years. Yet the achievement gap persists. What have we learned in that time?
A: We’ve learned how difficult it is to reach everybody who needs help. There’s been some progress, but there are still a lot of kids who aren’t getting the support they need. That remains a challenge for the school district and for the mayor’s office.
The Way to Grow program is a good one, but it’s a question of enabling it to expand. It simply needs to reach more kids than it currently does. [It served 1,321 kids of 960 parents in 2012.] The difficulty is to place enough people who can help within the reach of people who need help.
Q: What can the new Minneapolis mayor do about that?
A: First, let me say that I’m delighted Mayor [Betsy] Hodges has made a strong commitment to closing the achievement gap and to starting by improving the lives of very young children. But this is a problem of poverty, and that means it’s not an easy problem to solve.
I don’t know that I have a simple answer about what kind of practical program that should lead to. Fundamentally, it requires that an increasing number of people become sufficiently involved and committed to finding an answer, so that over time, you’d set up a series of groups across the city, each of which would be exploring this problem and looking at the resources in their areas.
Health services is the one common element that can be harnessed to bring people together and show them how their kids can be assisted in moving ahead. I’d suggest starting there.
Q: Mayors Hodges and [Chris] Coleman [of St. Paul] have been calling for a minimum-wage increase as one way to help poor families. Is easing poverty an effective strategy for closing the achievement gap?
A: Poverty is clearly tied to the lack of progress on the achievement gap. Raising the minimum wage would be a forward step. But that’s not the only problem. You’re also dealing with family attitudes that are shaped over time. If a family would have more resources to buy groceries and pay rent, that would be helpful, but it would not create a different home culture — not right away, anyway.
Q: Should the city’s neighborhoods be organized to take on this work?
A: I think you have to start with the neighborhoods. But maybe a neighborhood is too large to keep active groups going. Ideally, you’d tackle this in areas small enough so that as you get to know people and get people to commit to helping, the effort stays recognizable and manageable. As much as possible, these groups should operate on their own without having to be reinforced or supplemented from the outside.
Q: Is that feasible, in some of the city’s poorest neighborhoods?
A: I’m increasingly impressed with the importance of people ultimately being involved in solving their own problems — a group of people taking the initiative to make change rather than having to wait for somebody to come from some outside source to tell them what to do. They should find their own answers. When people own an activity, it works better. It lasts longer.
This is a very general concept. In application, it gets into trouble. It’s a question of working with what you have. But to the extent you can get people involved — helping to sort out their own problems, looking to the outside for ideas, but managing the effort themselves — it’s a better way of developing answers.
Lori Sturdevant is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist. She is at email@example.com.