A new player is joining the field of multimillion-dollar nonprofits aimed at erasing the achievement gap in Minneapolis schools.
Minnesota Comeback announced its presence earlier this month with donations totaling $2.7 million to the Minneapolis School District and to some charter schools.
The contributions come at a time when Minneapolis is facing some of the largest achievement gaps in the country between white students and low-income and minority students. Already schools and other organizations, such as Generation Next and the Northside Achievement Zone, are pouring money and other resources into programs that might help close those gaps.
Now Minnesota Comeback, made up of 28 foundations and private donors, will spend millions in the coming year on its key strategies: increasing the diversity of teachers in the city, engaging families and expanding high-quality schools.
Unlike some of the other organizations, the group supports both traditional Minneapolis district schools as well as charter schools, public schools that are independent of the school district. This year Comeback will spend nearly $500,000 to help expand two high-performing charter schools, Hiawatha Academies and Prodeo Academy.
The group’s support for charters has raised opposition from a small but vocal group of Minneapolis residents and one Minneapolis school board member. They suspect Minnesota Comeback is out to undermine the traditional public school system by replacing it with a vast network of charter schools, like in New Orleans or Washington, D.C.
Not to worry, says Al Fan, an ex-charter schools association administrator and now director of Minnesota Comeback. The group is out to support high-quality schools, he said.
“Our funders have said repeatedly, we don’t care what kinds of schools we are supporting; we just want the best schools for our kids,” Fan said.
Five focus areas
Minnesota Comeback’s roots go back about three years, when executives at the Minneapolis Foundation and others felt that initiatives to close achievement gaps were not producing results.
The group found that the city needed 30,000 “rigorous and relevant” seats, and the organization would focus on five areas to create them: schools, teaching, policy, facilities and community engagement.
In July 2015, the organization named itself Minnesota Comeback and hired Fan, a former General Mills executive, to run their work.
So far the organization has raised nearly $8 million, mainly from regional and local foundations.
Bill Graves, CEO of the John & Denise Graves Foundation, said he and his family fund donated nearly $300,000. They support Comeback because it gives them the chance to have a bigger impact by focusing on the same big-picture initiatives as other foundations.
Other organizations also serve as an umbrella for major donors, mainly Generation Next, run by former Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak. Both Fan and Rybak say they see each other as collaborators, not competitors.
“We are very complementary,” Fan said.
Impact on traditional schools
But the goal to create 30,000 “rigorous and relevant” classroom seats has raised suspicion that Comeback wants to shift the 36,000 students from Minneapolis district schools into charter schools.
In October of last year, Minneapolis interim superintendent Michael Goar sent Fan a letter saying he was concerned about the organization’s focus on new charter schools. “I wanted to make sure they weren’t just pro charter and anti [Minneapolis Public Schools],” Goar said.
Goar and Fan say that letter prompted them to have more honest conversations, and Goar said he now sees that Comeback is committed to supporting the district’s vision of giving individual schools more control of major decisions and investing in quality school leaders and teachers.
Comeback is giving the school district more than half a million dollars to pay for its teacher residency program, which helps education assistants and other district staff become licensed teachers. It is the group’s largest donation to a specific program this year.
Concerned that the district is accepting Comeback’s money, Minneapolis school board member Rebecca Gagnon tried unsuccessfully to limit Goar’s authority to work with the organization.
“Everyone seems in support of this except me,” she said. “I just want to see partners that will build us up in all aspects, in how they talk about us, how they work with us, not just money.”
Alberto Monserrate, a former Minneapolis school board member, said he supports the collaboration because the achievement gap is too large for only a few organizations to tackle.
“I hope Minnesota Comeback will be able to break through the polarization and focus on the things that will work,” he said.