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Personal relationships help close the achievement gap

“The school system is so rushed — to teach something you will remember for a test and then forget — that there’s no time for relationships,’’ says Paris Carruthers, 22.

Paris Carruthers, left, and Shanell McCoy of Youthprise are facilitating conversations between Twin Cities youth and the Generation Next partnership.
Photo by Dane Smith

Shanell McCoy, 19, and Paris Carruthers, 22, are emerging Twin Cities leaders  who have been researching what youth actually think about their education system and an adult society that constantly worries about the achievement gap but too seldom listens carefully to  those on the other side of the gap.

“The conversation gets complicated, but people are overthinking this,’’ says McCoy. “I think it’s as simple as communication, listening, and more and better personal relationships with caring adults. Too many decisions, about us, are made without us.’’

“The school system is so rushed — to teach something you will remember for a test and then forget — that there’s no time for relationships,’’ adds Carruthers. She adds: “The people on the hill  (her term for the educational and social establishment) keep saying it’s a problem and sometimes only make it worse.’’

Their insights come from facilitating meetings this summer with older teens and youth for the Generation Next initiative, a promising new comprehensive partnership focused on improving student success broadly across the Twin Cities, complementing efforts already under way in the most disadvantaged neighborhoods.

A collective action model

Generation Next is building a detailed cradle-to-career  “road map’’  by bringing together students and parents, as well as education, community, philanthropic, government and business leaders to identify and adopt successful programs that are proven to work.  This collective action model, now being adopted in many metropolitan areas across the nation, as well as rural communities in Minnesota, activates a powerful network of people committed to reaching well-defined goals.

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McCoy and Carruthers were involved in helping one of several “action networks” focused on Early Literacy and College and Career Readiness. With the help of professional facilitators, dozens of action network members in Minneapolis and St. Paul will establish charters and action plans focused on closing gaps in those key areas – in ways that have demonstrated their effectiveness.

“The action networks are where grassroots community members take ownership of identifying solutions for the achievement gap,” says Frank Forsberg, an executive with Greater Twin Cities United Way who helped launch Generation Next and is currently serving as the group’s executive director. “Their intimate knowledge of their communities will be a key to understanding how we can change the dynamic that currently keeps so many students from reaching their full potential.”

smith photo
Dane Smith

McCoy and Carruthers are budding change agents at the same time they are trying to navigate a complex higher-ed system and a career launch for themselves. They both work part-time for Youthprise, a creative nonprofit that seeks to innovate and improve the quality of youth development outside the classroom.

Their savvy on the subject also comes from their real lives in the most diverse Twin Cities neighborhoods, urban and suburban. McCoy is from Brooklyn Park, a suburb with a high and growing percentage of minority students, and Carruthers has lived all over the Twin Cities, in Minneapolis, St. Paul, and both northern and southern suburbs.   McCoy is interested in a marketing career and is a student at Minneapolis Community and Technical College;  Carruthers is pursuing accounting, and returning this fall to St. Paul College.

Learners thrive when they connect with others

The summary of youth input for Generation Next  swirls around the word “personal relationships’’ and a more holistic approach to student success and human development. Learners thrive when they connect personally with teachers, mentors, tutors, out-of-school leaders, not so much when they are drilled to distraction to get the right answers on high-stakes standardized tests.

McCoy and Carruthers and other Youthprise leaders prepared a written summary of their findings from youth input and came up with 10 recommendations, which included:

  • Create a more accountable community and wider base for support in school, at home, in relationships, in our neighborhoods.
  • Have a more interactive classroom experience.
  • Teach real-life skills to improve readiness for college/career.
  • Have more resources for financial help.
  • Find positive role models and mentors.

The summary did not absolve youth themselves of responsibility for their own lives, and the report notes “the youth felt that there was a  level of accountability missing’’ in some young people. “Some circumstances, environments, influences and setbacks make it hard to succeed in school; but it is up to the individual to create their future.’’

A general theme in the summary was that teachers and the entire community had to be connected and focused on improving social conditions and social infrastructure,  supporting students in school and out of school.

“(Youth) thought more personable teachers would help (students) want to learn and engage. Feelings of teachers coming in for a paycheck … were prominent.” And: “The youth believed that everyone needed to be accountable for creating that community in and out of school  to create a positive future for themselves and for the younger generations.’’ 

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“These are the kinds of conversations we need to be having,” Forsberg says. “The next critical step is identifying the programs that can most effectively achieve results.”

Young people dispel any despair about ‘the gap’

Meanwhile, nothing dispels despair about “the gap’’  quite as effectively as a few hours of quality time with young people striving to close it for themselves. In addition to conversations with McCoy and Carruthers, I felt lucky to be involved recently at two events in Minneapolis, a graduation ceremony  at Minneapolis City Hall for the Urban Scholars program, and the 10th anniversary of the highly acclaimed internship program known as STEP-UP, in a joyous celebration at the Guthrie Theater.

The beaming young high-school students, whose lives have been transformed by STEP-UP’s high-quality work experience,  were easily the stars of the show.  Almost as inspiring were the program’s co-founders, Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak and US Bank CEO Richard K. Davis, who at one point summed up the secret to the program’s success as, you guessed it, the “personal relationships’’ built between STEP-UP students and employers who are often delightfully surprised by their skill and creativity.

McCoy and Carruthers, and the youth informing Generation Next, seem to be saying exactly the same thing.

Dane Smith is president of Growth & Justice, a nonpartisan policy research group focused on a more inclusive prosperity for  Minnesota. A version of this article was published in the Legal-Ledger Capitol Report.


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