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Coming Soon to a Theater Near You: Education Reform
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Coming Soon to a Theater Near You: Education Reform

Parents are being encouraged to push for better outcomes.

We sometimes forget business is a world separate from the populace. Most average Minnesotans focus on their families, friends, free time, finances, and job (or jobs), and leave strategic planning, socio-economic concerns, industry challenges, community planning, and other such matters to those who own and lead companies, and to elected officials. Yet it is the masses themselves who really need to hear of, and deal with, some of these issues.

Case in point: Minneapolis Public Schools’ (MPS) dismal performance serving the majority of those who rely on it—not only to prepare their children for post-secondary education, but to at least provide them with a high school diploma—and the impact this failure will have on our economy if not rectified.

More than two-thirds of MPS’ population are students of color, yet they’re far less likely to graduate in four years than are white kids. Black children, for example, represent slightly more than one-third of the district’s student population, but only 36 percent of them graduate after four years of high school. That’s a little more than half the rate for white kids. It’s even worse for Hispanic and American Indian children (see chart).

This is not to say MPS is a failure. To the contrary, it’s doing well given how we expect it to teach bright, aspiring kids, while also working with children with personal and family problems beyond what most of us have experienced. We also have dumped on it the role of Ellis Island—it’s Minnesota’s No. 1 melting pot of ethnic backgrounds and nationalities. And each ethnicity comes with different social and cultural norms that have to blend with all the others.EdNoteChart.gif

Against these and other challenges, the district is making some headway improving graduation rates among children of color. But it’s doing so at the pace of a tortoise when a rabbit’s speed is required, given how soon this issue will affect our economy.

Minnesota State Economist Tom Stinson has for at least six years spoken to business leaders about an impending labor shortage. In a nutshell, our labor force—still made up primarily of baby boomers—is aging into and beyond retirement age and a much smaller generation of young adults is following in their footsteps. The general public isn’t very aware of this, however.

The only way to maintain economic growth without a budding labor force is to increase worker productivity (which seems already fully tapped); and/or increase reliance on imported employees and talent willing to move here from elsewhere in the world (expensive and challenging, given that other regions are facing the same issue).

This leads us back to Minneapolis Public Schools. Of its 32,263 students, fewer than half will receive four-year high school diplomas under current conditions. Of this group, only half (about 7,000 kids) will be ready to attend a two- or four-year college.

From an economic perspective, the question becomes: What if we could flip things around, so that at least three-quarters of these students—roughly 24,000 kids—graduate and are ready for college? In other words, how can we do a better job of cultivating our workforce of tomorrow? The general public isn’t much aware of this concept, either.

That’s where the Minneapolis Foundation hopes to make a significant difference through its RESET public awareness campaign. Launched last month, it aims to close the educational achievement gap “and emphasize what works to create K–12 schools where every child succeeds.”

Before you say “Good luck with that” and turn the page, thinking of all the other similar lofty ambitions you’ve seen come and go, consider this one’s merits.

For starters, it succinctly communicates the economic and community importance of better K–12 results: Graduating students of color at the same rate as white students would add $1.3 billion annually to Minnesota’s economy by 2020.

Next, it takes a businesslike approach to reforming education, where too often people still mistakenly believe you cannot run a school like a business. The foundation points to proven strategies at Hiawatha Academies, which ranked No. 1 in Minnesota last year for their progress in closing the achievement gap. Only 2 percent of its students are white, and most are from poor families; but as a whole, they far outperformed their peers in MPS in reading and math assessments.

The foundation then organizes these strategies proven successful by Hiawatha (and other schools) under the nifty acronym RESET. It stands for:

  • Real-time use of data.
  • Expectations for every child to excel, not excuses.
  • Strong leadership empowered to shape effective staffing resources and hold them accountable for success.
  • Effective teaching based on how students master material.
  • Time on task—have students spend more time in the classroom.

Finally, it creatively takes the fight to those who are in the best position to do something about it—the parents—and encourages them to push for implementation of these strategies in their children’s schools.

To reach those parents, the foundation tapped writers from each community to create messaging that includes cultural themes that come from and relate to that community. Foundation partners are now arranging meetings with parents when and where it’s most convenient for them. “We’re often talking about parents who are working two or three jobs, and we may need to meet with them on a Saturday or Sunday,” says Minneapolis Foundation President and CEO Sandra Vargas. It also created public service announcements in local media, social media, on skyway banners, and as one-minute trailers before movies at local theaters.

In essence, the messaging tries to convey that “every kid can learn, and you don’t have to cure poverty first,” Vargas says, and that there are ways to achieve this that complement what schools and teachers are already doing.

“We’re trying to drive demand for excellence,” she says. “The business community already gets that, but it is the parents who now need to be on the front lines.”

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