For several years now, a handful of Minneapolis charter schools have demonstrated that the persistent achievement gap need not be permanent.

On the North Side, Harvest Prep, Best and Seed Academies recently celebrated completely closing the disparity between white students and students of color in their state test results. In south Minneapolis, Hiawatha Academies has also become a notable “beat the odds’’ school for improving learning for lower-income students.

Both programs feature strong curriculums, high expectations and vigorous levels of family engagement, despite the challenges many of those families face.

These schools are among the examples of what can and must be done to develop youth potential and help Minneapolis grow. Assuring a strong economic future for the city means attracting businesses and highly skilled workers. But it also means developing the skills of the neediest residents who come seeking opportunities — and of the youths and adults who are already here.

Minneapolis has much work to do on this score. By whatever name — achievement gaps, opportunity disparities or access deficiencies — there are too many inequalities. Minnesota and its largest city share the dubious distinction of having some of the largest gaps in the nation on measures of education, income, health and housing.

Wide and lasting standard-of-life disparities between races and haves and have-nots have consequences. One need look no further than bankrupt Detroit to see what can happen when poverty concentrates and deepens.

In Minneapolis, poverty rates are three times as high for many minority groups as for whites. Yet those groups are the ones that are growing and will populate the future workforce.

Closing the disparities is not just about doing the right thing. It is about the future economic viability of the city and region.

Back in 2005, the “Mind the Gap’’ report, published by the Brookings Institution with contributions from the Itasca Project (a Minnesota business group) and the McKnight and St. Paul Foundations documented the problem and pointed toward solutions. The report noted:

“[T]he fates of large cities and their metropolitan areas are intertwined — they grow together or they decline together. … When central city incomes grow, then suburban incomes, home values and populations also increase. Reductions in central city poverty rates help fuel income growth in the whole region. Reducing special disparities also creates efficiencies that lower infrastructure costs.’’

That now eight-year-old study raised awareness and helped prompt some action, but not nearly enough. The gap in employment rates between America’s highest- and lowest-income families has stretched to its widest levels since officials began tracking the data a decade ago, according to an analysis of government data conducted for the Associated Press.

Rates of unemployment for the lowest-income families — earning less than $20,000 — have topped 21 percent, nearly matching the overall rate during the Great Depression.

In in his final State of the City address earlier this year, Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak wisely focused attention on the disparities problem, calling the achievement gap an issue of social justice and civil rights that is “central to our economic future.’’

“This is a crisis,’’ Rybak said, “and we have to act like it.’’

Though the city has deep disparities across several standard-of-living measures, education has received the most attention.

A recent poll of Minneapolis residents, conducted for the Star Tribune, found that education is a top priority for voters. That indicates how much Minneapolis citizens care about their schools and how eager they are for student performance to improve.

It is also telling that education has emerged as a major issue in the city’s upcoming mayoral election — even though the mayor and other city officials have no direct jurisdiction over city schools.

But even without direct power over schools, city officials can influence and supplement efforts to address inequalities. Here are some priorities the new mayor and City Council should pursue:

• Promote birth-to-age-4 development: City government can have a big impact on the city’s littlest learners. City health department workers come in contact with needy families and can help with prenatal care, nutrition and other basics that contribute to healthy child development.

Programs such as Minneapolis-based Way to Grow show how well that kind of outreach works. The program gets pregnant moms involved in nurturing and educating even before their children are born.

During the last school year, nearly 100 kindergartners and first-graders enrolled in the program showed a 42 percent increase in vocabulary. Nearly three-quarters were reading at or above grade level. All had annual physicals, and 94 percent of their parents attended parent teacher conferences.

Widely cited research by former Federal Reserve economist Art Rolnick confirms the value of quality nurturing for kids from birth to ages 4 and 5. He found that for every dollar spent on preschool education, society receives at least a $7 boost to the economy.

• Replicate K-12 programs that work: The Minneapolis district has historically not done of good job of copying the strategies of its own successful schools or working with quality charter programs.

For too long, district leaders treated charters as competitors that were stealing students. Now Superintendent Bernadeia Johnson is partnering with Harvest Prep to expand the good work of that program to more city public school kids. City leaders should back her efforts.

Under the superintendent’s new plan, known as the “Shift,” the city’s most challenged schools would be placed under an alternative teacher contract allowing for extended school days and hiring outside of the current union teacher pool — similar to charters.

The district is also working with the North Side Achievement Zone, a program that offers wraparound services to lower-income families to reinforce what is taught in schools.

• Back education reform: In addition, city leaders should use their offices and bully pulpits to encourage and help rally support for necessary but sometimes controversial education reforms, among them more flexibility in assigning teachers regardless of seniority, finding ways to improve or close the worst-performing schools and more.

• Expand youth opportunities outside of school: Like preschool development, this is an area where city government involvement matters most. Minneapolis officials can put more muscle behind getting young people connected with summer and after-school activities offered by parks-and-recreation programs, libraries and community centers. They can work with law enforcement to reduce truancy and improve school attendance.

Rybak has called his Step-Up summer jobs program one of his proudest achievements. During the past decade, the program has placed more than 17,000 teens in summer jobs — the majority of them teenagers of color. Some of those summer positions have led to permanent jobs. All of them gave teenagers work experience and helped keep them out of trouble during summer months.

Working to connect the city’s youths with constructive activities has been the mission of the Minneapolis Youth Coordinating Board for over 20 years. Building upon the successes of such programs will directly help narrow education and income disparities.

• More training and jobs for the hard-to-employ: The city’s poorest families can increase their incomes if they improve their skills and find better-paying jobs. The city can help.

The gap between white and African-American unemployment in Minneapolis is the largest among the top 50 U.S. cities. That’s why the city must continue to be actively involved in job training. Rybak noted that since 2002 the city has placed nearly 14,000 hard-to-employ and dislocated workers into good jobs. In 2012, 81 percent of the trainees were people of color.

New city leaders should expand strategies like the RENEW program that trains people for specialized, high-paying green jobs. And they should use the city’s influence to ensure that Minneapolis residents are employed in construction work on the new Vikings stadium and the Target Center renovation.

Projects that support business and job growth in the city’s most economically challenged neighborhoods merit expansion, as do efforts to help more minority-owned businesses and employers get off the ground.

• Increase housing options and promote healthy living: To grow effectively, Minneapolis must facilitate development and preservation of a full range of housing options — rental and owned, apartments and starter homes, lofts and condos and larger family houses.

On the health front, the city can adopt policies that promote good nutrition and healthy choices. Mary Brainerd, CEO of Health Partners and a contributor to the “Mind the Gap” report, said that health outcomes are 20 percent about health care delivery and 40 percent about socioeconomic factors, with the rest about behaviors.

City policies discouraging smoking, promoting exercise (by, for example, creating more walking and biking options) and improving access to healthy food will help, she said.

• • •

Minneapolis will thrive if it improves opportunities for all of its residents to thrive. Narrowing socioeconomic gaps must be a top priority for those who want to lead the city into a bright future.


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