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Generation Next should be more inclusive and make better use of ‘beat the odds’ schools

One encouraging example is the Increasing College Readiness (ICR) collaboration, which involves four St. Paul district schools and two St. Paul charter public schools.

Innovative schools like the Hiawatha Academies deserve the support of the Generation Next program.
Hiawatha Academies

If the Twin Cities is going to make substantial, long-term progress on reducing achievement gaps, we need to make better use of “beat the odds” schools, and be more inclusive than Generation Next has been in its first grant awards of more than $1 million. Fortunately, there are models of progress, and greater inclusiveness, showing why and how this can be done.

Joe Nathan

One encouraging example is the Increasing College Readiness (ICR) collaboration, which involves four St. Paul district schools and two St. Paul charter public schools. More than half (and in several cases more than 80 percent) of the students in these schools are from low-income families and represent families of color.

In ICR’s first year, from fall 2011 to fall 2012, the initial five schools increased enrollment of students in Dual (High School/College) Credit courses by 56 percent. That’s important, because extensive research shows that students who take courses such as Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate, College in the Schools and Post Secondary Options are more likely to not only enter, but graduate from a two or four year college or university.

The collaboration involves four St. Paul district schools: AGAPE, Creative Arts, Gordon Parks, Open World; and two St. Paul charters: Community of Peace Academy and Higher Ground Academy. ICR recognizes that there are important lessons to be learned from district and charter educators.

Sustaining the progress

ICR also recognizes the value of investing in faculty in these schools as was done in Cincinnati, supposedly the model for Generation Next. Having spent six years in Cincinnati helping the district make major gains in graduation rates and major reductions in black/white graduation gap, we found that helping improve skills of existing staff, and building new partnerships, makes progress more sustainable (rather than having to rely on continued grants).

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The latest available research gives other important reasons for students to take more challenging classes in high school. University of Minnesota/Minnesota State Colleges and Universities (MnSCU) research shows that about 40 percent of Minnesota high-school graduates who enter a Minnesota public college or university must take at least one remedial course. Nationally, only one-fourth of students who take remedial courses graduate from a two-year college in eight years.

Moreover, Minnesota Office of Higher Education statistics show that Minnesota graduation rates at the Minnesota State Universities, as of 2011, were only 22 percent for four years, and 48 percent for six years. While there are various reasons that graduation rates are low, they include the facts that too many students enter without having critical reading, writing and math skills, and too many don’t have the money to pay for college. Taking, and doing well in Dual Credit courses helps with both problems.

Benefits of ICR collaboration

The St. Paul ICR collaboration also has:

  • Brought together, in the summers of 2012 and 2013, district and charter educators with college/university reading, writing and math faculty. In many cases, high-school faculty reported that this was the first time they’d met with higher education faculty to discuss expectations for entering students. Many college faculty reported these were the first times that they’d learned from high-school faculty about teaching and learning strategies that they have found useful with inner-city youngsters. More than 90 percent of the participants rated these workshops as useful, and as something they want to continue.
  • Helped each of the participating schools create new Dual Credit courses, as well as strengthen existing courses.
  • Used You-Tube videos created and material written by students to encourage students and families to make more use of Dual Credit courses.

ICR is supported by the Bremer, Frey, Morning, St. Paul, and Travelers Foundations. It is coordinated by the Center for School Change, where I work.

One of the ICR schools is Higher Ground Academy (HGA), a charter school that has been recognized several times by the Star Tribune as a “beat the odds” school. Founded by former Minnesota Commissioner of Human Rights Bill Wilson, HGA also has been recognized by U.S. News and World Report as one of the state and nation’s top high schools.

Several odds-beating schools recognized

HGA is not the only “Beat the Odds” school in the Twin Cities. The Star Tribune consistently has recognized several other schools, including Harvest/Best Academy and Hiawatha.

Unfortunately, although these three schools applied to Generation Next earlier this year for some of the more than a million dollars that was distributed, none – not one of them received a grant. Instead, the money went to six other groups, including two organizations whose mission is to support the Minneapolis and St. Paul districts, as well as to several other groups. For example, Achieve Minneapolis describes itself on its website as “the non-profit partner of the Minneapolis Public Schools.” St. Paul Schools Foundation describes itself as “Rallying investments of time and resources to support academic success in the St. Paul Public Schools.”

One grant went to Minnesota Literacy Corps, which explained in its press release that it would be working with four Minneapolis district schools. Charters were not mentioned.

Another group that received funds was the Wilder Foundation, for its Promise Neighborhood project. Are any of the Promise Neighborhood district schools on the Star Tribune’s “Beat the Odds” list? No. Compared to the three “Beat the Odds” schools mentioned above, has the Promise Neighborhood been “proven to work,” the kind of program that Gen Next says it seeks? No.

Moreover, unlike the Northside Achievement Zone in Minneapolis, Promise Neighborhood has not included the charter public schools located in its geographic area, despite numerous requests. While there have been recent promises to be more inclusive, as of July 12, the Promise Neighborhood map does not include or acknowledge that these schools exist in the area.

Wilder leaders say this will change. But as the director of the charters located in the Promise Neighborhood wrote at the end of June, “patience is no longer a virtue.”

Finding best practices

Generation Next said it wanted to identify and expand the “best practices” available to reduce or eliminate achievement gaps. Was rejecting applications from all three of the “Beat the Odds” charters that applied the way to expand “best practices”? (Full disclosure – I helped write one of those applications). But even ignoring that application: are Minneapolis. St. Paul students well served when Gen Next spends more than $1 million, but rejects all three of the “Beat the Odds” charters that applied?

Gen Next leaders with whom I’ve talked say they were not giving money to individual schools or systems. But funding both of the district foundations, a project that has excluded charters, and another project that won’t use Gen Next money to work with any charters is not the way to begin.

Gen Next leaders have invited charter and district staff to meet with each other. But real collaboration and progress involves sharing cash, not just inviting people to attend meetings. Will prominent Twin Cities funders that have help expand outstanding district and charter programs expect that both will receive Generation Next funding? Sure hope so.

The Increasing College Readiness Project shows that district/charter collaboration and resource sharing can help produce real, measurable progress in a short time.

Joe Nathan, formerly a Minnesota public school teacher and administrator and PTA president, directs the Center for School Change. Reactions welcome,


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