A monumental meeting to help students

Joe Nathan
ECM Contributing Writer

“This was monumental,” according to Gary Cunningham, Vice President at the Northwest Area Foundation in St. Paul.  About 200 educators met last week to learn from some Minnesota’s public schools that have been most effective in closing the achievement gap. They were from district and charter public schools, and they focused on helping students. The African American Leadership Forum (AALF), General Mills Foundation and the University of Minnesota co-sponsored the meeting.

Mary Donaldson, Chris Stewart and Bill Wilson discuss ways to help students. Photo by Joe Nathan

Cunningham believes “All children will benefit if this continues.”  I agree.

Eric Mahmund, co-founder and executive Director of Harvest Prep in Minneapolis, was one of the keynote speakers.  Harvest Prep frequently has appeared on lists of Minnesota’s “Beat the Odds” schools. That’s because despite the fact that more than 90 percent of its students are from low-income families, and more than 95 percent are African American, 82 percent of the schools students tested “proficient” in math, and 76 percent tested proficient in reading. Both are above the state average.

Mahmoud listed five key gaps in Minnesota. He’s found that “schools can overcome all of them.”

• Preparation Gap (too many youngsters from low income families come to kindergarten with low birth weight, not having heard enough words or encouragement.

• Time Gap: Given the preparation gap, many youngsters from low-income families need a longer day and a longer year.

• Belief gap. Mahmoud called this “the most important gap.”  It’s the belief of some people that students from low-income families cannot succeed in school.

• Teaching Gap – failing to use research based approaches.

• Leadership Gap – More leaders needed who know how to overcome other gaps.

Mahmoud recalled the 1979 words of the late Harvard Professor, Ron Edmonds:

“How many effective schools would you have to see to be persuaded of the educability of poor children? If your answer is more than one, then I submit that you have reasons of your own for preferring to believe that pupil performance derives from family background instead of school response to family background … We can, whenever and wherever we choose, successfully teach all children whose schooling is of interest to us.  We already know more than we need to do that. Whether or not we do it must finally depend on how we feel about the fact that we haven’t so far.”

Bill Wilson is former Minnesota Commissioner of the Department of Human Rights and founder of Higher Ground Academy in St. Paul; another “Beat the Odds” school lists. Wilson emphasized the need to respect family culture and to promote high expectations.

Wilson was joined by Mary Donaldson, director of St. Paul’s Concordia Creative Learning Academy, in stressing that successful schools with low-income young people must teach arts as well as academics. CCLA also is a “Beat the Odds” school.  “This is not just about test prep,” Donaldson pointed out. “It’s about helping prepare youngsters to be active, caring, involved citizens.”

Chris Stewart, formerly a Minneapolis (District) Public School Board member and a member of the African American Leadership Forum, explained that “this was a pilot. We wanted to see if people would come. Today was a trial. This was long overdue, and I hope it’s the start of something.”

Jeffrey Hassan, an attorney and one of the AALF leaders, told me he “felt wonderful” about the fact that about 200 people decided to attend the Saturday sessions. He sees this as “a good start” of conversations in Minnesota, not about whether district or charters are better, but about what can be learned from the state’s most effective schools. That’s exactly what young people need—more pragmatism, less politics.

Joe Nathan, formerly a public school teacher and administrator, directs the Center for School Change at Macalester College. Reactions welcome, jnathan@macalester.edu

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