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.
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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