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To make Minneapolis youth initiatives succeed, we need to learn from past failures

&nbsp;&nbsp;<strong>Dennis Schapiro</strong>
  Dennis Schapiro

Mayor R.T. Rybak last week rolled out his “Blueprint for Action: Preventing Youth Violence in Minneapolis,” (PDF) less than a month after the Minneapolis Board of Education agreed on a set of principles for a strategic plan.

In both cases, many good citizens recognized problems and worked to develop responses. These folks deserve our thanks.

But.

These wonderful plans, principles and recommendations are echoes of hundreds (not dozens, hundreds) of initiatives hatched to help Minneapolis young people over the past 20 years, initiatives that have been forged, trumpeted and forgotten, leaving behind, at best, a nice, small, vulnerable program or two.

If this season’s initiatives are to succeed, as we can all hope, we need to engage in an unnatural act and learn from Minneapolis’ history of initiatives for young people.

Last year, for example, was the due date on an ambitious citywide agenda carved out by 150 civic leaders for Minneapolis kids in 1987. It was called City’s Children 2007 but was a memory by 1990. Several of the Blueprint recommendations could have been pulled from that document.

Blueprint latest in long line
The Blueprint is the latest of many efforts. Remember “No Magic Bullet: What Minneapolis Youth Say About Gun Violence”? How about Hennepin County’s “Initiative for Violence-Free Families”? The Minneapolis Public Health Department’s 1996 Youth Homicide Study or its 1998 “Promising Approaches to Youth Violence Prevention: A Program Planning Guide” or the Minneapolis Public Schools’ “Safe Schools, Healthy Students” initiative? The Minneapolis Human Service Redesign project? Or Hennepin County’s report “When Kids and Systems Collide,” which in 1992 pinpointed the sizable gaps in our support of young people?

The school plan also has roots. Are the principles spelled out in the new strategic plan really different in spirit from those outlined in 1995 by Peter Hutchinson in his “Eliminating the Gap” plan or Carol Johnson in her 2001 “12-Point Plan”?

We never seem to learn from those efforts before launching the next initiative.

Politics play a role.

Our responsibility for young people is diffused. Families, communities, faith institutions and neighborhoods are all significant. Schools and other units of government play crucial roles, as do foundations, the United Way and community-based organizations.

The buck never stops. The responsibility is never affixed.

Children don’t vote. Promises get a lot of political mileage with people who do. Kids can’t hold anyone accountable, so there is little consequence for anyone if highly touted initiatives fade quickly.

We know what young people need that our institutions outside schools can address. They need better physical and mental health care. They should not, when young, be exposed to high levels of lead. They should not face hunger or malnutrition. We have never systematically held public officials accountable for providing those.

More important, we know what institutions cannot do. We know kids need to be talked to and read to. They need to trust adults close to them. They need to live without fear of abuse or neglect. They need limits.

We need to hold parents to high standards
And on these non-institutional issues we have failed miserably. For fear of blaming the victim, we refuse to hold parents to high standards, and we accept generation after generation of new victims.

So, if the city and school plans are to be what we all hope, we need to reflect on the history of efforts in the city.

Over the past year, some of us have looked at the 400-plus initiatives since 1987 in search of lessons. We’ve come up with five things we need:

A shared vision: Our institutions and funders bounce from one initiative to another, rarely staying with an effort to continuously improve it and the system. It might not be easy, but we should be able to get our community behind a basic health care effort — all kids have immunizations and physical exams. We could, with struggle, set and promote standards for all parents, such as you should talk to and read to your child.

Better information: It is all but impossible to analyze and learn from previous efforts because there is little record-keeping.

Stable leadership: Initiatives too often do not survive leadership changes and depend on political champions rather than track records.

Stable funding: Everyone who works with young people knows the cost of trying to serve kids while depending on the whims and political agendas of people who set annual budgets.

Better collaboration and coordination: Despite the creation of several formal collaboratives, the real work tends to focus on parts. The school strategic plan was developed through the schools; the Blueprint, as a city initiative with outside advice.

We know that we must address whole kids. Narrow, uncoordinated efforts rarely support healthy development of young people. No kid is just a student, just a threat, just an artist, just an athlete, just a lost soul. We embrace that larger view in so many reports and initiatives, but rarely follow up.

We have no one looking at how we support young people in a comprehensive way, no one holding anyone accountable. If we are to do more than create a stream of glossy initiatives, we need a commitment to improve the whole system to support kids.

Minneapolis has its Youth Coordinating Board, which began in the 1980s to convene city, county and school officials around issues for young people. The Children 2007 document was its signature effort, but the YCB quickly abandoned that larger focus and now mostly administers start-up programs.

Other cities and counties have developed broadly based children’s budgets, children’s agendas, report cards or scorecards. A Minneapolis effort might well look different from those of other areas, but some comprehensive monitoring is necessary.

The question is whether we are ready to recognize the complex system around our young people, monitor it and continuously improve it.

The MPS strategic plan and Minneapolis Bueprint will be nothing more than press clippings unless we do.

Dennis Schapiro is a Minneapolis business owner and former member of the Minneapolis Board of Education and Youth Coordinating Board. Information on the Minneapolis children’s initiatives project described in this article is available at MinneapolisChildrenNow.org.


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