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For all students to thrive we must see, and enhance, the unique assets of each one

MinnPost file photo by Terry Gydesen
R.T. Rybak

Sometimes the simplest points make the most profound impact. That was the case last week when an offhand comment became one of the most profound statements I’ve heard about how we need to view closing the racial gaps we have in student achievement.

The comment came near the end of a complex meeting about how to close racial gaps in math. After a long technical discussion about data, Wilder Foundation’s Paul Mattessich told a story about his daughter’s experience teaching math in Los Angeles and then Minnesota.

The children in her Los Angeles classroom had a difficult time understanding the concept of negative numbers. That’s no surprise: It’s hard enough to understand the idea of zero – nothing – and much harder to then understand what is less than zero.

When she got to a Minnesota classroom she was surprised students understood negative numbers much faster. Then she realized anyone living through a Minnesota winter understands negative numbers. Less than zero? Just walk outside.

The comment got a knowing laugh, and it has when I have repeated it since then, but it also makes a profound point.

Think about what this story tells us: A unique set of children, because of their unique experience, has a learning advantage.

Understanding unique skills

Now apply that to the work of Generation Next, where we are trying to make sure every child from very diverse backgrounds can thrive in school and beyond. To do that we must close gaps in learning but it also means doing more to understand, and enhance, the unique skills different groups bring to the table:

  • The immigrant child yet to master English has a steeper climb to master reading, but she also gives the child next to her a new understanding of the global populations both of them will have to work with in the future.
  • The African American or Native American child who takes a bus across town to a school where most people are different from him faces barriers, but he is also developing the skills 3M or Cargill need as they send workers to parts of the world where they are not part of the majority culture.

Too often, discussions of closing our unacceptable academic gaps with children of color are wrapped in the idea that we need to bring “this part” of the population up to the level of “that part” of the population. In reality every child has to move together to a new world that will require every one of them to be exposed to, and comfortable with, multiple cultures.

Like those kids in Minnesota who understand negative numbers because of their unique experience, every part of the population brings something to the table that we all need to navigate a rapidly diversifying world. And like the Minnesota child who can teach a child in L.A. something about math, some of the very kids who have the largest achievement gaps are also the ones who can open the eyes of others.

None of this diminishes the critical work of closing unacceptable racial gaps in outcomes for getting children ready for school, reading by third grade, mastering math standards by eighth grade, graduate from high school and then college. Generation Next has initiatives under way in each of these areas.

New assets in the community

The value of the weather analogy illustrates that we are addressing this work mindful of both the deficits and assets of each of our children. I saw that clearly over the past week, as a series of events demonstrated how an increasingly diverse community has new assets and still struggles to find ways to bring different populations together:

  • At a ceremony celebrating honor-roll students at St. Paul’s Ramsey Middle School I met Hafsa Ali, an eighth-grader especially strong in science, who wants to become a doctor so she can open a clinic to help those in Somalia.
  • At the Act 6 Celebration at the Colin Powell Center in south Minneapolis, I saw 30 students — representing all the cultures of our community — get full college scholarships because of their exceptional high school records. Many mentioned they will be the first person in their family to go to college, including a student from the fast-growing Karen immigrant population from Burma.
  • At Saturday night’s fundraiser for the Sanneh Foundation I saw 800 people giving time and money to support this exceptional group that helps mentors build trusted relationships with a diverse group of high school students.
  • Sunday morning, after giving the sermon at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in southwest Minneapolis, I talked at coffee hour with members of an almost all white congregation deeply committed to finding ways to help tutor and mentor the diverse students in our schools.
  • And as I write this on Monday, 60 dedicated public health professionals are in the next room working through the details of how to make sure every 3-year-old is screened so we can eliminate disparities before children get to school.

We’re much closer than we think

My work today, like my time as mayor, gives me the privilege to travel between our community’s many different worlds that often exist right next to each other. It has shown me that we are much closer than we think. The challenge we face isn’t about having part of the population help another; it’s about all of the population understanding we need each other more than ever.

So, the next time you walk out into a below-zero Minnesota day and wonder why you live here, remind yourself it’s all about teaching kids negative numbers, and a whole lot more. That, and some good long underwear, should be enough to get us through at least next January.

R.T. Rybak, the former mayor of Minneapolis, is the executive director of Generation Next. This piece originally appeared on the Generation Next Weather Blog

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Comments (4)

  1. Submitted by Lynnell Mickelsen on 03/13/2015 - 09:37 am.

    Great piece, RT

    …….thanks for all the work you and Generation X are doing. I especially like the focus on kids as assets to the community—-not problems that need to be fixed. Bravo!

  2. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 03/13/2015 - 09:53 am.

    For crying out loud…

    Is there no escaping this blizzard of platitudes about education? We’ve had what? 3-4 articles in Minnpost about MPLS public schools in the last two weeks and NOT ONE concrete suggestion or example pointing to any kind of effective intervention. Celebrating diversity isn’t going to erase disparity.

    Look, why is this soooooo much to ask. Give us an example: you have a Somali child who’s having difficulty with math problems…. WHAT TO YOU DO TO HELP THAT CHILD? Sure, maybe there’s language issues, maybe there’s cultural issues, maybe there’s socio-economic issues… whatever; given THOSE issues WHAT TO YOU DO TO HELP THAT CHILD LEARN MATH?

    Yeah, that child is unique and beautiful, is that helping them learn math? Will giving that child another test help them learn math? Will firing the teacher help the child learn math? Will changing union lay-off rules or teacher licensing requirements help that child learn math? Will chopping up the school district help? Does giving some OTHER child a scholarship help that child learn math? Will having a bunch of meetings with “stakeholders” help that child learn math? What? WHAT DO YOU DO?

    Tell ya what- we KNOW how to teach that child math. We don’t have to invent anything, we just have to fricken do it.

    • Submitted by Brian Simon on 03/13/2015 - 09:37 pm.

      fair enough

      You’re right, this one is a little light on details; but I’d bet if you emailed our former mayor he’d talk your ear off about the details. Here’s one nugget from his piece that was easy to skip over:

      “as I write this on Monday, 60 dedicated public health professionals are in the next room working through the details of how to make sure every 3-year-old is screened so we can eliminate disparities before children get to school.”

      This is actually a pretty good thing. Here’s the dirty little secret of the education battles: poor education outcomes aren’t the result of poor funding. They aren’t the result of greedy teachers unions. Outcomes are largely predictable based on which kids arevery prepared for kindergarten. Broadly speaking, kids of parents who take an interest in education & read to their kids every day are ready for school & have positive outcomes. The inverse is true as well.

      The real challenge for Generaton Next will be in identifying effective means of getting the 2nd group of kids ready for school. I suspect it will hinge on a combination of programs that help parents develop 1) parenting skills; 2) job skills, which produce a 3) stable home environment. That last bit is the part that has a high correlation with success in schools. In the end, if we want to close the achievement gap, it’s not the schools that need fixing, but the parents. When parents have job skills & equality of opportunity for success, kids do well.

      • Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 03/16/2015 - 08:40 am.

        Maybe unfair enough…

        “as I write this on Monday, 60 dedicated public health professionals…”

        I don’t mean to be Mr. Grumpy but this is just so frustrating. It’s nice that maybe someone in a different room is doing something helpful but that doesn’t lend Mr. Rybak’s article any substance. I don’t know why Rybak would choose to write an article devoid of substance but I’m sure if he’s got something substantive to say Minnpost would print it.

        As for the 60 dedicated professionals, I know an epidemiologist that went to Bangladesh (the country) and evaluated and designed an entire disease surveillance regime for a country that doesn’t have one… by herself. We already do childhood screening, you don’t 60 people to figure out how to push it down to a younger age. I guarantee you that we have experts at the U of M School of Public Health, and the MN Health Dept. that study and design childhood screening, you need maybe six people, not 60 to work this problem. You might need 60+ people to actually implement it if you’re doing it state-wide, we do have what? 87 counties? Still, I’m sure it a good idea, but that screening won’t erase the achievement gap.

        “The real challenge for Generaton Next will be in identifying effective means of getting the 2nd group of kids ready for school. I suspect it will hinge on a combination of programs that help parents develop 1) parenting skills; 2) job skills, which produce a 3) stable home environment. That last bit is the part that has a high correlation with success in schools. In the end, if we want to close the achievement gap, it’s not the schools that need fixing, but the parents.”

        See, this is the problem… no one actually seems to be working the actual problem, everyone is working around it. This isn’t about the next generation, and it isn’t about fixing parents. We have something like 33,000 student in MPLS system right now, and I’m guessing more than a thousand entering this system this year alone. With the exception of actual brain injuries or impairments ALL of those children are teachable, and we know how to teach them. Yes, some face more or different challenges but they are still teachable.

        Absolutely a more equitable society with higher income, stable jobs, and stable home environments helps, but our schools are not and can not be a vehicle for “fixing” society at large. How can you start with the premise that the school doesn’t need fixing and expect to fix the schools? How can you start with the premise that education gaps can’t be narrowed for THIS generation of students and expect to see narrower education gaps? No wonder the problem is so persistent.

        Look, you can sit around and identify factors that contribute to disparity for years on end, but you’ve still got students sitting front of you that need an education. At some point you have to identify the students who are struggling and provide interventions that actually work for those students. And we don’t have to invent those interventions, they exist. No student body is ever going to have nothing but perfect parents, or perfect home environments, or affluent backgrounds, or language proficiency. You can still have a state of the art educational system without the disparities we’re seeing in MPLS and St. Paul today.

        Hint: with diverse populations like those in the core cities effective interventions for struggling students aren’t going to be cheap. You need to provide additional instruction to struggling students, and you may need to provide that instruction outside the standard school hours, using additional staff. You’re not going to find additional instruction sitting around somewhere for free.

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