Gary Cunningham

For over 20 years, Gary Cunningham has served as the top leader of philanthropic, health care, public policy and educational organizations. Currently, Gary serves as vice president, chief program officer for the Northwest Area Foundation. He is responsible for carrying out the foundation's mission to support efforts by the people, organizations and communities to reduce poverty and achieve sustainable prosperity.

WE ALL DO BETTER WHEN WE ALL DO BETTER

Posted by: Gary Cunningham under Society, Education and literacy, Government, Politics Updated: September 22, 2010 - 9:51 PM

WE ALL DO BETTER WHEN WE ALL DO BETTER

It is our duty now to begin to lay the plans and determine the strategy for the winning of a lasting peace and the establishment of an American standard of living higher than ever before known. We cannot be content, no matter how high that general standard of living may be, if some fraction of our people—whether it be one-third or one-fifth or one-tenth—is ill-fed, ill-clothed, ill-housed, and insecure.
 
 
The title of this article is a phrase coined by the late, great senator from Minnesota, Paul Wellstone. In a 1999 speech to the Sheet Metal Workers Union, he stated: “Whatever happened to the idea…that we all do better when we all do better? When I travel the country, much less travel Minnesota, I'll tell you this: I know what people are focused on. People are focused on: how can I get a decent living so that I can get my children the care that they need and deserve. People are focused on: how can I make sure my children get the best education. People are focused on: how can I make sure that we don't fall between the cracks and get decent health insurance coverage.”
 
What many of us fail to realize is that we are all interconnected and interrelated. What happens in Minneapolis impacts what happens in Shakopee. We are part of an interconnected and interrelated system that includes roads, transit, housing, economic infrastructure, commerce, the environment and governance. If we choose to allocate public resources to fighting crime, then we can’t support economic development or early childhood development. Unless we understand this interdependence and the need to invest in the whole community, we will continue to make inefficient and ineffective use of our limited resources. In other words, we all do better when we all do better.
 
Working Twice as Hard
Today, we are facing significant economic crisis, the likes of which have not been seen since the Great Depression. Despite significant efforts, including the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) of 2009 and expansion of unemployment insurance benefits and healthcare—particularly for children—in 2009 one in seven Americans lived in poverty and one in six was uninsured. Poverty and lack of insurance are particularly common among African Americans and other communities of color.
 
It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to realize that the high poverty rates are directly linked to high unemployment rates. In the Twin Cities, this is particularly true for African Americans. In his report, Uneven Pain: Unemployment by Metropolitan Area and Race, Dr. Algernon Austin of the Economic Policy Institute documented that the unemployment rate for African Americans in the Twin Cities was one of the highest in the country and that the disparity in White–Black unemployment was also  the highest.
 
A few weeks ago, I facilitated a community discussion featuring Dr. Algernon Austin, hosted by the Alliance for Metropolitan Stability at the Wilder Foundation. This community discussion was held to better understand the reason for the disparity in unemployment rates for African Americans and what can be done about it. In Dr. Austin’s presentation, titled Working Twice as Hard: African Americans and the American Labor Market,
Dr. Austin cited a disproportionate high-school dropout rate and lack of education as major contributors to the high African American unemployment rate. He also cited discrimination in the labor market and the relatively young age of the African American labor force.
 
High School Completion
The issue of disproportionately high dropout rates for students of color in the Twin Cities is a subject I am familiar with. Several years ago, former St. Paul mayor George Latimer and I co-chaired a Citizen’s League study committee. It produced a report titled, A Failing Grade for School Completion: We Must Increase School Completion in Minneapolis and Saint Paul. The report said that, “…despite the promising practices and best intentions, there simply is not sufficient pressure on the system to make the necessary [graduation rate] improvements. Good intentions and promises of improved performance are not enough. To genuinely succeed in engaging all students, the Minneapolis and Saint Paul school districts need to set measurable school completion goals, establish clear rewards and consequences for success or failure, restructure the notion of high school, and improve schools capacity for taking the steps they need to engage more students in learning.”
 
The report went on to insist that “The current dismal outcomes on school completion are unacceptable and continuing the status quo threatens the vitality and livability of our community. The public, the Legislature, executive agencies, parents, teachers and administrators all hold part of the solution for achieving greater school success for students in our core cities. We must do better for our students and our state.”
 
Solutions
While the school systems, charter schools, community-based groups and parents have all attempted to implement some of the report’s recommendations, much remains to be done to ensure that students graduate from high school.
 
Below I highlight three promising efforts to improve educational outcomes for all children in the Twin Cities.
 
The Saint Paul Promise Neighborhood
Saint Paul is one of 21 communities across the nation that President Obama selected to receive a $500,000 Promise Neighborhood grant. The Saint Paul Promise Neighborhood, which encompasses a 250-block area in the Summit-University and Frogtown neighborhoods, is a community-wide effort to ensure that all children succeed in school, and in life, through seamless coordination of cradle-to-career educational, family, and community resources and supports. The Promise Neighborhood effort is led by The Wilder Foundation and supported by a variety of community organizations, including these key partners: the City of Saint Paul, St. Paul Public Schools, Ramsey County, St. Paul Public Schools Foundation, Summit University Planning Council, Frogtown Neighborhood Association, and the YWCA of Saint Paul.
 
MayKao Hang, Wilder Foundation President, said “The Wilder Foundation is thrilled to take a leadership role on behalf of Saint Paul Promise Neighborhood. Our collaborative efforts with the many partners will assist our community in becoming stronger and more vibrant.”
 
According to Councilmember Melvin Carter, “This Promise Neighborhood grant is an incredible opportunity for the Frogtown and Summit University neighborhoods. Through this initiative, we will ensure that all of our youth, regardless of family income, have the tools, resources and support they need to succeed, whatever it takes!"
 
Michael Anderson, Executive Director of the Saint Paul Public Schools Foundation, was equally enthusiastic: “This grant will galvanize the community and bring students, parents, community organizations, the city, and the school district together to support academic and social success for all children in the Summit/University and Frogtown neighborhoods.”
 
The Northside Achievement Zone
The Northside Achievement Zone (NAZ) works to build a culture of achievement in a geographic zone (North Minneapolis) to ensure that all youth graduate from high school, college-ready.
 
Thus NAZ is partnering with schools, organizations, and families to significantly improve education and to guarantee children’s access to support from pre-birth to college. This effort is patterned after the successful Harlem Children’s Zone, which demonstrated that low-income children can achieve, graduate, and compete at the same level as all other children.
 
According to NAZ leadership, they have laid the foundation and are ready “to fully plan and create a continuum of solutions that will ensure all children residing within the Zone are prepared to succeed in college and life. In order to achieve such an ambitious goal, NAZ has defined three areas of strategic focus:
 
·         Education Pipeline: A convening of district, charter and alternative schools, undergirded by a strong partnership of early childhood and out of school time providers, will co-construct with NAZ leadership a new educational experience for children on the North side.
 
·         Family Engagement: By engaging families in children’s success and empowering neighbors as leaders in the effort, NAZ will create a culture of achievement in the Zone.
 
·         Opportunity Alignment: By building a coalition of existing service providers, NAZ will revolutionize the way organizations work together and refocus their service delivery around clear achievement outcomes for families and children in the Zone.
 
Within this integrated NAZ Continuum system, every organization, family and neighbor is focused on children’s education and success. This effort will result in children entering kindergarten ready to learn, students demonstrating proficiency at or above grade level in reading and math and children graduating from high school prepared for college and life success.”
 
The Strive Partnership
Another effort that has shown promise to improve educational outcomes for all children is The Strive Partnership in the Greater Cincinnati metropolitan area. From the education, business, nonprofit, community, civic and philanthropic sectors, Strive brings together leaders at all levels to support every child, every step of the way, from cradle to career. Its Striving Together report can serve as a catalyst for discussions about the current state of education. Built on the Six Sigma model of quality and accountability, the Strive model ensures outcomes that are consistent with its roadmap for student success.
 
It is important that we in the Twin Cities take the opportunity to learn from the Strive Partnership in Cincinnati. I believe they are on to something that will transform urban public education.
 
The Saint Paul Promise Neighborhood, NAZ and Strive are just three of the successful approaches available to us for changing the tide of low student achievement and low graduation rates, not only for African Americans, but for all young people in our community.
 
We Are Better Together
It is in our interest—all of us—to ensure that all young people graduate from high school on time and with the requisite skills to become productive citizens in our community. As Sen. Paul Wellstone so aptly stated, we all do better when we all do better.
 
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