Greater Twin Cities Region Moves Aggressively to Close the Achievement Gap

Posted on July 20, 2012 by Under Secretary Martha Kanter

As the plane took off for Washington, DC and I leaned back in my seat reflecting on the convening in Minneapolis, I could almost see a golden halo around the Twin Cities region, a region of commitment, courage, dedication and promise! It might have been the sunset glow, but I think it was much more than that. The golden glow was certainly evident at the Minneapolis Club on the evening of June 7th where the Twin Cities United Way President and CEO Sarah Caruso brought to the table leaders from education, business, philanthropy and the nonprofit sector of Minneapolis and St. Paul. The topic of discussion? How to close the achievement gap in the region’s P-12 schools by working together to accomplish much more than could ever be envisioned in silos.

I traveled with Brenda Girton-Mitchell, Director of our Center for Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships, who is launching “Together for Tomorrow,” a national initiative to spotlight and foster partnerships between communities and schools to propel improvement of our lowest-performing schools. Many Americans don’t know that we have 100,000 elementary, middle school and high schools in our 50 states and territories and that each state has identified, as priority schools, the 5% of K-12 schools that have the farthest road to hoe in lifting the academic achievement levels of their students to grade level for each and every grade, each and every year.

At the “meet-and-greet” preamble to the evening, I met two extraordinary women, Valeria Silva, Superintendent of the St. Paul Public Schools who is responsible for the education of 39,000 children and Bernadia Johnson, Superintendent of the Minneapolis Public Schools who oversees the education of 34,000 of our nation’s youth. These women were committed to their students, teachers and principals PLUS they are friends. They trust each other! That was obvious as was the fact that they are singularly focused on lifting their school districts to levels of excellence unimagined. The great respect they showed for one another was evident as they spoke with us about the opportunities and challenges they face every day in each of their schools.

Around the table were state leaders from Minnesota Achieves and ServeMinnesota, local government leaders led by the equally extraordinary Mayor of St. Paul, Chris Coleman, who clearly has education at the top of his priority list, local foundations who are bringing evidence-based high impact practices to the classroom and strategic advice to the table, the new provost of the University of Minnesota, Dr. Karen Hansen, a native Minnesotan, who shared her vision for the university as an anchor institution of the community, ready to bring its world-class education research to the students and educators in these schools, vice presidents of Target and General Mills, Reba Dominski and Kim Nelson, respectively, who understand that corporate investment and philanthropy must leverage what the partners can do together, all for the purpose of getting greater educational gains from the children, local and state philanthropies including MayKao Hang of the Wilder Foundation, Mike Anderson of the St. Paul Public Schools Foundation and Carlene Rhodes of Minnesota Philanthropy, and nonprofits like Step Up and Ramp-Up to Readiness, led by United Way, providing wrap-around services, after school education, healthcare, social services and family engagement support to make a significant impact in the lives of these kids and in the future of the Twin Cities region. Oh yes – the federal government was also at the table, not taking credit for any of this, wanting to be an effective catalyst for positive change. We explained that Together for Tomorrow has four outcome goals that we call the ABCs:  seeking to use these levers of change for community partnerships that are essential to helping the principals and teachers dramatically improve the academic performance of their students. The ABCs stand for boosting key measurable outcomes in four areas: Attendance, Behavior, Course Performance and College Access.

We congratulated the leaders for winning one of the highly competitive federal Race to the Top – Early Learning Challenge grants, a Promise Neighborhoods Implementation grant for Minneapolis and a Promise Neighborhoods Planning grant for St. Paul. For the remaining time, we talked a lot about how to build a culture throughout the region dedicated to educational success to ensure that the State’s lowest achieving schools have the capacity to change the lives of their students for the better, and, in turn, build the communities that will sustain our prosperity and democracy as a nation. If we can help these schools turnaround, we will be well on our way to President Obama’s goal “to have the best educated, most competitive workforce in the world by 2020.” I cannot think of a national challenge more exciting, more daunting and more doable than this!

The next morning, Rev. Girton-Mitchell convened community and faith leaders representing diverse religious communities, parents, education leaders and elected officials for the first “Together for Tomorrow” town hall hosted by the Greater Twin Cities United Way and organized in partnership with the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships  and the Corporation for National and Community Service. The agenda focused on the importance of communities coming together to change the course of children’s lives for the better. Les Fujitake, Superintendent of the Bloomington Public Schools participated in the summit and shared perspectives about the partnerships he and his staff were expanding to benefit the children of the school district, especially those whose families do not have the economic resources one would hope.

At the town hall, we spotlighted local partnerships to improve K-12 schools, including the multifaceted efforts of the Greater Twin Cities United Way.  I gave an overview of Together for Tomorrow.  Nancy Stachel, Principal of Maxfield Elementary School in St. Paul shared how community partnerships are an essential component of her successful efforts with a Department School Improvement Grant.  AmeriCorps VISTA member Maren Gelle talked about how she and her fellow VISTAs are connecting community resources in the Twin Cities to meet school needs in the ABCs.  We also heard from Dr. Donald Easton-Brooks of Hamline University about the link between higher education and improvement of K-12 schools.

Rev. Brenda Girton-Mitchell finished the day with a call to action for the entire community to help improve the lowest-performing schools in the Twin Cities, because everyone has a role to play in creating strong schools and a community culture of education success.

The visit and town hall energized our team, and we will continue to be proud partners and supporters for education in the Twin Cities. Brenda and I were delighted to be part of these Twin Cities community conversations and look forward to increasing golden opportunities for each and every student and family in the region and throughout our nation as we truly join “Together for Tomorrow!”

Martha Kanter is the U.S. Under Secretary of Education

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