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The Minneapolis Promise: It’s becoming a model for boosting youth achievement

A quiet miracle is transforming the lives of many Minneapolis youth. Through a combination of summer work and college supports, the percentage of Minneapolis high-school graduates attending college has grown from 45 percent to 62 percent in five years. Led by Mayor R.T. Rybak and U.S. Bank Chair Richard Davis, STEP-UP and the Minneapolis job program are introducing youth to better futures in surprising numbers. What's emerging is a model for closing the achievement gap in the city.

Mike Christenson
Mike Christenson

Let's begin with the story of Alex Glaze. Alex and his twin sister grew up in poverty and were removed from their mother's home early in life. Alex quickly learned that if he needed a ride to school or school supplies, he was on his own. He began working in junior high to take care of household needs. At 18, Alex and his sister were told to leave their father's home for good.

After graduating from Southwest High School, Alex worked in the Minneapolis mayor's office as a STEP-UP intern. This summer, he joined nearly 2,000 other STEP-UP interns and dozens of employers to celebrate their summer accomplishments. For many interns, it was their first work experience. Like so many of us, they described their summer jobs as their first big break.

A summer jobs initiative that began with 200 internships in 2003 has since produced 16,000 STEP-UP and summer jobs in the city of Minneapolis. Employers of the year have included: the University of Minnesota, Hennepin County, the YWCA and Best Buy. An ad commissioned by U.S. Bank in the Sept. 21 edition of the Star Tribune Business Section thanked all 211 STEP-UP employers and the Minneapolis Chamber of Commerce.

Three parts to the program
The summer job is one of three parts of the Minneapolis Promise offered through Achieve Minneapolis.

Mayor Rybak visits assemblies of ninth-graders in each Minneapolis public high school every fall. There, he lays out a compelling alternative to street life. Every Minneapolis youth may compete for one of 2,000 summer jobs, must complete a college and career map called "My Life Plan," and can apply for thousands of scholarships through Minneapolis Community & Technical College, Augsburg College, the University of Minnesota, Admission Possible, the Children's Defense Fund, the McGuire and Wallin and Page Foundations and many more programs.

State and city leaders from all sectors worry about the overwhelming challenges of the achievement gap in Minnesota. Populations of color trail others in measures of educational success at a nation-leading rate. We're a proud state, and national leader in so many categories, but this is a leadership position we need to vacate.

After eight years, the Minneapolis Promise offers hope. A combination of summer jobs, career and college plans, and scholarships adds up to more than the sum of its parts. With the mayor and business leadership marketing this in the form of a promise to Minneapolis youth, more citizens of color are choosing college or a credential. This year Richard Davis noted that a STEP-UP intern he has mentored since 2003 would soon graduate from the Carlson School of Management.

The record
If the Minneapolis Promise continues to grow, the achievement gap will shrink. Here are the facts:

•    Over 82 percent of the STEP-UP and city summer interns are persons of color.
•    More than 900 students have attended MCTC under the Power of You program, and the number of Minneapolis high-school graduates has more than doubled at MCTC in five years.
•    The University of Minnesota has admitted 166 STEP-UP interns since 2006.
•    ACT testing and college participation rates from the Minneapolis high schools continue to grow.

Evidence is beginning to show that urban youth are more likely to pursue college and career paths through the three-part Minneapolis Promise.

Minnesota is poised to employ these graduates well into the next decade. With 20 Fortune 500 companies, we have the nation's third highest need for college graduates as a percentage of our work force. Our population growth will come from those least likely to attend college today. So it's a good time for the Minneapolis Promise.

Our work-force challenge
For Alex and his young STEP-UP colleagues, we celebrate the power of the Minneapolis Promise. Minnesota's future work-force challenge will be to inspire populations not likely to attend college to hear this promise. In Minneapolis, we have found that summer jobs join with college supports to boost college participation. Let's hope that miracle can go to work, first through a summer job, for all Minnesota youth like Alex. And let's hope that the business community, which has kept this promise in Minneapolis, will inspire others as well. One last thing: Alex Glaze is in the freshman class at Stanford this fall.

Mike Christenson is the director of the Department of Community Planning & Economic Development, Minneapolis.

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