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Educational support services can close the achievement gap

USDA Photo by Lance Cheung
In order to have the greatest impact, resources offered beyond the classroom need to be implemented broadly and equally.

Minnesota’s excellent schools were one of the reasons my father moved our family here more than 20 years ago. The education I received from the Minneapolis Public schools helped to shape the person I am today, and my children are now enrolled in this district. However, as the student population has grown increasingly diverse in the past 10 years, our ability to provide a high quality education and resources to support students from a variety of communities has not.

Ilhan Omar

Minnesota spends less money on nonclassroom support services than any other state, and it shows. Students who are Native American, black, Latino, or Asian-American face abysmal graduation rates. They are less likely to complete high school in four years in Minnesota than if they attended school anywhere else in the U.S.

Minnesota’s diversity should be its greatest strength, but our neglect of nonwhite students has stifled our progress toward growth and equity. This problem can be solved. By designating specific funding for student support services, such as counselors and after-school programs, Minnesota can ensure that all children have the opportunities they need to thrive and succeed.

State lacks holistic strategies and resources

Wraparound services help create an environment where students are encouraged and supported in their learning, all the way to high-school graduation. Learning is not limited to the classroom, and Minnesota shouldn’t limit its education resources there, either. Many schools in other parts of the country have developed successful student support services, but our state lacks holistic strategies and resources to implement them on a statewide basis. Legislative funding that is specifically designated for student support systems is a crucial first step to developing an equitable education system.

In order to have the greatest impact, resources offered beyond the classroom need to be implemented broadly and equally. As a community educator at the University of Minnesota’s extension program I helped families develop nutrition strategies, and my work with the Department of Education helped encourage schools to establish free after-school supper programs for all students. I know from my work with low-income and marginalized communities that at a young age, children notice which students come to school with homemade meals, and which students wait in line to punch in a code for a reduced lunch. The students waiting in line may see themselves as different. By the time they are in middle school, they may stop punching in their codes. No one may notice that they have stopped attending lunch because our schools do not have adequate counseling or attendance services. And then, by the time they reach high school, if students stop attending classes, it’s too late. We must provide support services, beginning in elementary school, that are freely available to all students, and work to close the opportunity gap that greatly impacts students from marginalized communities.

Seeking nurturing environments

In addition to addressing basic nutrition and health needs, we need to develop school environments that nurture and welcome diversity. Counselors trained in cultural competency will be able to provide resources to students who are English language learners. Hallway monitors who direct stragglers to their classrooms would reinforce the message that the attendance of every student matters. Mental health providers would provide a listening ear and appropriate assistance to stressed-out students who face turbulence and instability at home. But instead of these resources, our state devotes funding to armed police guards and Violent Extremist Risk Assessment programs that encourage instructors to monitor and single out students of color. Instead of entering classrooms where teachers and classmates are excited to see them, students from diverse backgrounds are met with hostility.

I want my children to attend inclusive schools where diversity is respected and acknowledged as a sign of strength. Every student has something to offer, and every student deserves a nurturing learning environment. This legislative session, our state policymakers have the opportunity to close Minnesota’s achievement gap through support for wraparound services. Until they do, thousands of Minnesota students will continue to fall through the cracks of our broken education system.

Ilhan Omar, of Minneapolis, is a candidate for state representative in House District-60B.


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Comments (5)

  1. Submitted by Peter Swanson on 03/24/2016 - 10:29 am.

    nonclassroom support

    Are we talking per pupil, actual dollars, or as a percentage of education spending? According to MPR (quoting the Census Bureau) it is a percentage of education dollars. If Minnesota spends more on education overall, it stands to reason that it spends proportionately less outside the classroom.

  2. Submitted by Eric Paul Jacobsen on 03/24/2016 - 03:34 pm.

    Spiritual Equality Demands Material Equity

    We hold this truth to be self-evident: that all people are created equal!

    What do we mean by this paraphrase of a famous line from the Declaration of Independence? We do not and cannot mean that we are all independent. When we come into the world, we are naked and helpless, absolutely dependent. Education is one of the gifts that we pass on to our children so that they will become inter-dependent, a nation of peaceful, industrious, and compassionate free people. Education is necessary because freedom is our goal, not our starting position, and because freedom comes from interdependence, not from isolation. We must learn how to live in freedom.

    We are all spiritually equal – that is, in secular language, we are equal in inherent worth and in unforeseen potential – and this is true regardless of the wealth or poverty into which we are born. No child chooses the material circumstances of his or her birth. But in a civilized society that takes seriously the belief in the spiritual equality of all children, we need to look at the material inequality that segregates our children, and we need always to ask how to abolish it. It is often racism that makes us look away and racism that insinuates that material inequality is fair or natural. Both religion and secular humanist morality are in agreement that economic injustice is neither divine nor natural. On the contrary, it is a human creation, and human beings have the moral responsibility to overcome it.

    I find Ilhan Omar’s article bracingly clear, constructive, and compassionate. I have linked it to my Facebook page. There is so much ignorance, confusion, obfuscation, and even outright dishonesty in our discussions about education, and yet some solutions to our problems are simple and require only the political will to fund them. If the people of House District 60B choose to elect Ilhan Omar to represent them, I think they will be blessed indeed.

  3. Submitted by Claude Ashe on 03/24/2016 - 03:57 pm.

    I have a genuine question…

    This is sincere— I’m not trying to be snarky.

    Why did the immigrants of 100 years ago appear to acclimate to American schools without battalions of “culturally sensitive” staff? Is it solely the issue of skin color?

    I’ve read, for example, how the Irish were outright despised by practically everyone in the 19th Century and yet they carved out a place in the American economy and have done alright. And they did it without “wrap-around” services.

    Everything this article mentions used to be the job of parents. I don’t understand why schools have to be therapy.

    And believe it or not, I’m a liberal.

  4. Submitted by rolf westgard on 03/25/2016 - 11:36 am.

    Those services are too late

    We need a strong pre school program, like Gov Dayton wants. to erase the achievement gap.

  5. Submitted by howard miller on 03/26/2016 - 01:59 pm.

    How helpful is ‘help?’

    Special education became a fact in 1975, Title 1 services were developed about the same time. Each year billions of dollars are entrusted to mental health service providers to promote the mental health of children via almost uncountable programs. The net result? Disparity in educational attainment between different cultural groups has gone from being a gap to a yawning canyon.

    There can be little question that the emphasis of intervention needs to shift radically but the remedial education & mental health networks developed to date to close the gap have become established and insatiable; funding streams will never be diverted to perhaps more promising alternatives until paradigms have shifted significantly and that is not about to happen.

    I’m not Nostradamus but I feel quite comfortable in prophesying that ten years hence, in spite of massive expenditures the canyon that is the achievement gap will have become a tectonic shift. I wish it were not so but you cannot solve a problem by utilizing the same bankrupt solutions repeatedly.

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