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New coalition targets achievement gap in schools

  • Article by: STEVE BRANDT
  • Star Tribune
  • November 28, 2012 - 9:41 PM

An influential collection of metro-area organizations goes public Thursday with a new attempt to focus the spending of millions intended to erase the achievement gap in inner-city schools.

The Generation Next partnership, to be formally announced Thursday, will focus first on fostering research-based strategies for closing racial and economic achievement gaps in Minneapolis and St. Paul, both district and charter schools. But it hopes to expand to suburban districts if it demonstrates results.

New federal data this week indicated that Minnesota ranked last in four-year graduation rates for Latino and American Indian students, second to last for black students and near the bottom for low-income students.

"We need to get this done or we're in major crisis mode," said Michael Goar, the partnership's new director and a former school district administrator in Minneapolis, Memphis and Boston.

The partnership of schools, business, foundations and youth-serving agencies was formed through an initial collaboration between the African American Leadership Forum and the University of Minnesota. Also playing key roles are the Amherst H. Wilder Foundation, Greater Twin Cities United Way and the Minnesota Minority Education Partnership. Both city districts are participating, and representatives of their teacher unions sit on the governing board.

Business representation on the group's board also reflects increasing corporate concern over the state of the future workforce at a time when racial minorities make up a growing proportion of school enrollment but have dismal outcomes as a group. Major employers such as 3M, Target, General Mills, HealthPartners and Cargill are participating.

Mapping goals

The group is developing goals for kindergarten readiness, third-grade literacy, eighth-grade math proficiency, graduation and college success. It will work through subgroups focused on early grade literacy, readiness for college and careers, teacher quality and parent involvement.

Research fostered by the group found more than 500 initiatives in a dozen metro school districts focused on improving success between birth and college completion, with gap-closing as a goal. Those included both district programs and those outside school aimed at student success.

Goar said the problem is that there's little coherence in efforts to close the gap. The partnership plans to review research to find best practices for strategies at various stages of youth development, both in and out of school, then promote those among youth agencies and districts.

"It will become very clear what's working and what doesn't," said Chris Stewart, director of the African American Leadership Forum, which released a 2011 report analyzing the racial achievement gap.

Because major foundations are represented on the board, spreading knowledge about what works can influence how organizations they fund do their work, Goar said.

"I'm sure the funders will ask, 'Why aren't you implementing best practices?'" he said.

The approach is adapted from one used in Cincinnati, where a similar cradle-to-college effort began in 2006. It includes the public district, two nearby public districts in Kentucky and two parochial districts. A review of some high school and college indictors for students there shows some improvement, but not as much as resulting from an earlier effort to transform Cincinnati high schools undertaken with help from the Gates Foundation and St. Paul's Center for School Change.

Joe Nathan, the center's director, said the Cincinnati effort by a group known as STRIVE worked backward from high school in an attempt to influence results for even younger children.

Lynn Nordgren, president of the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers, said she joined the Twin Cities version of STRIVE, now known as Generation Next, because she wants teachers represented.

"We see lots of ways the system can be improved," she said. "I see potential, but it's brand new so the jury's out."

Steve Brandt • 612-673-4438 Twitter: @brandtstrib

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