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Within our means: Let’s ask Minnesota colleges, universities to ‘adopt’ struggling K-12 districts

This is a “Pay It Forward” idea that, without significant overall additional costs, could offer meaningful economic benefits involving collaboration between the state, health care, higher education and K-12 institutions.

This is a “Pay It Forward” idea that, without significant overall additional costs, could offer meaningful economic benefits involving collaboration between the state, health care, higher education and K-12 institutions. In this simple plan, the government reduces health-care costs and fosters higher educational outcomes; colleges improve the likelihood that their alumni will remain, or will become, philanthropically involved; senior citizens improve their health and well-being while reducing their expenses; and children get the individualized attention they need to become academically successful.

Here is how: Let’s ask every willing institute of higher education to “adopt” a K-12 district in which there is a significant portion of the population not currently demonstrating proficiency on National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) exams (use NAEP, not No Child Left Behind tests, so that comparisons are valid across states). The colleges will then provide trained volunteers to help out at this adopted school.

Colleges and universities could consider where the highest percentage of their alumni live and choose an appropriate school or district to adopt in the area. Or, we might ask the commissioner of education to hold a lottery among K-12 schools to find out which of the higher-ed A, B, C’s alumni will be on their team (Augsburg, Bemidji State, Carleton, etc.)

Alumni who live farther away from adopted districts/schools could be involved as e-mentors to students. As demonstrated in Steve Borsch’s recent article “Wired for 2020,” Web 2.0 technologies have dramatically increased the potential for distance support of classroom learning activities and individual student work. Students everywhere are publishing their work online — as early as third grade — on classroom web pages, blogs and wikis, to which an easy response can be generated from a distance via type, voice or video.

A health-insurance credit for volunteering
To further reward senior alumni volunteers who participate, a health-insurance credit could be earned — just as credit for health-club visits is currently offered by insurance providers such as Blue Cross, UCare, and Medica. For seniors, the health-benefits of both exercise and volunteering have been documented, (PDF), so this agreement makes sense for all parties. The “credit” from health-insurance providers could be small  — consider $20 toward a reduction in premium or prescription costs for each month in which 12 hours of volunteer time is served.

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The benefit of informed tutoring on student learning has also been identified. Relating cause and effect in education is indeed complicated, with so many factors to consider. But it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to recognize that personal attention by an informed (and caring) adult will help a child to learn. As a middle-school teacher, digital divide-crossing program designer, and curriculum director working entirely with students living in low-income families, I’ve seen and documented the profound impact of informed tutoring on the academic performance of many once-struggling students. The rewards — to student and volunteer — are apparent, mutual, and significant.

Similarly, institutions of higher education would benefit from re-engaging their alumni in this service-learning opportunity. Perhaps alumni would feel more inclined to associate their institutions of higher education with generosity if they were involved in volunteering. Alumni would also feel more invested in their local school community — and more eager and confident going into a K-12 school — if they knew they were going to bump into other alumni there.

The governor — or commissioner of education — might further reward both the K-12 and higher-education schools whose students (and alumni) document the largest increase in NAEP proficiency with a “Heisman Trophy” of a different sort at the end of each year. Perhaps local companies would become involved in supporting this shared investment in their future employees with their own donations or in-kind services.

Mutual benefit for seniors, students
The time for this kind of innovation is now. The potential economic toll related to the imminent movement of baby boomers into retirement has been well-documented, if not well-attended. The number of senior citizens is projected to double over the next 30 years. Clearly, anything we can do to help improve the health of seniors — without added cost — is a good idea for all of us. Just as apparent is the need to keep seniors interested in reinvesting in our schools, P-16.

A shared investment in our most precious national resource — children — will help us all through the long journey of serious challenges ahead. Moreover, we need to redress the academic achievement gap, which is nationwide and predictably correlated to income, but which is shamefully worse in Minnesota than elsewhere in the United States. We cannot afford to have unsuccessful students in the years ahead. For one thing, as baby boomers move into retirement, we will need a talented pool of workers to fill their shoes as workers — and as taxpayers.

At this point, working together, we can imagine being able to foster the necessary talent in our young people to meet the unique demands of our highly competitive, global, 21st-century economy — while also supporting the well-being of our seniors. With collaboration and focused use of available resources, we have the ability both to live within our means and to empower this nation for another period of sustained growth.

Siri Anderson, Ed.D., is an assistant professor in education at Bemidji State University.