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Minnesota Comeback is doling out more than $2.7 million in education grants. So who, exactly, is Minnesota Comeback?

Minnesota Comeback has positioned itself to serve as an umbrella entity to help coordinate education reform dollars — and efforts.

Having declared an ambitious goal of ensuring an additional 30,000 “rigorous and relevant” K-12 seats for Minneapolis students from low-income backgrounds by 2025, the nonprofit has already created a buzz among education philanthropists and leaders.
CORBIS/Randy Faris

The education coalition Minnesota Comeback made its media debut on Wednesday by announcing an initial batch of grants [PDF] totaling more than $2.7 million to support high quality education for Minneapolis students in district, charter and independent schools.

The investments include $574,575 for the Minneapolis Residency Program to help diversify the teacher workforce, $475,000 to help grow two high-performing charter schools, Hiawatha Academies and Prodeo Academy, a forthcoming $1 million to support parent engagement, and more.  (Disclaimer: Hiawatha Academies Executive Director Eli Kramer is the son of MinnPost CEO and Editor Joel Kramer, who was not involved in the preparation of this story.)

Maggie Sullivan, executive director of Minneapolis Public Schools’ Human Capital Department who sits on Minnesota Comeback’s teacher talent committee, says, “Being able to receive this incredible grant to support our residency program is an incredible benefit to Minneapolis Public Schools. We really believe that the residency program has an incredible ability to impact students, but also to change how we think about preparation and pipeline around high-quality and diverse teachers.”

The group has also allocated $250,000 to funding leadership training through the Achievement Network for interested school leaders and teachers across all school sectors. 

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With the financial backing of 28 foundations and participation of major education players — including Minneapolis Public Schools; Generation NEXT executive director R.T. Rybak; and Way to Grow executive director Carolyn Smallwood — Minnesota Comeback has positioned itself to serve as an umbrella group, helping to coordinate education reform dollars and efforts.

Having declared an ambitious goal of ensuring an additional 30,000 “rigorous and relevant” K-12 seats for Minneapolis students from low-income backgrounds by 2025, the nonprofit has already created a buzz in the education community. (Minneapolis schools enroll approximately 53,400 students in total.)

But in an already saturated education landscape, many are left wondering: Who, exactly, is Minnesota Comeback? How will it create these 30,000 “rigorous and relevant” seats? And is there a real need for another entity to join the likes of Generation NEXT and the Northside Achievement Zone (NAZ), which are also dedicated to closing the achievement gap in Minneapolis?

Old initiative, new name

About three years ago, a coalition of educators, community members, funders and organizations committed to addressing the achievement gap in Minneapolis joined the Education Transformation Initiative (ETI). The precursor to Minnesota Comeback, ETI existed as a project inside the Minneapolis Foundation. The Foundation’s CEO and executive director, Sandy Vargas, championed the initiative and hired Amy Hertel to lead the work in its brainstorming and research phase.

Under Hertel’s leadership, participants engaged in an in-depth systems mapping project [PDF] to plot out the entire local education ecosystem. Once they had plotted out all of the components and dynamics involved, gathering input from more than 150 teachers, education leaders and others, they identified five key levers of change: schools, the talent pipeline, community engagement, policy and facilities.

Al Fan
Minnesota Comeback
Al Fan

When Hertel left, the ETI advisory board decided to spin the implementation phase of the work off into a separate nonprofit organization, hiring Al Fan to serve as its executive director.

“We rebranded it as Minnesota Comeback,” Fan said, noting it officially launched last July 1. “The whole idea of Minnesota Comeback is to create a rallying cry for the community.”

Fan had previously worked as an executive at General Mills for 16 years. His background in education can be traced back to his earlier volunteer work supporting the startup, growth and expansion of charter schools as the founder and executive director of Charter School Partners.

In his role with Minnesota Comeback — which is currently run by four employees, with one new hire in the works — Fan serves as the “keeper of the flame,” he said. He primarily works with the 12-member board of directors and 28 funders to ensure they are all focused on the same vision: creating an additional 30,000 “high-quality seats” in Minneapolis schools.

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“I think what people are excited about is the idea that there’s a very specific, measureable goal that we can all work towards. I think everyone would say it’s an ambitious goal, but it’s the right one for our community,” he said. “It’s the principle of collective impact — when you have these common goals that align — that, I think, makes it so powerful.”

But translating that vision into tangible initiatives requires input from those most attuned to local education needs, including parents, teachers, education leaders, community members and nonprofits, said Fan. 

Nicholas Banovetz
Nicholas Banovetz

That is where Nicholas Banovetz’s role as the director of external relations for Minnesota Comeback comes into play. He helped create a diverse cabinet of interested parties that are grouped into seven distinct implementation teams to specialize in the talent pipeline, facilities, policy, community engagement, district schools, charter schools, and independent schools. These teams are charged with the task of studying their designated focus area and coming up with strategies for moving the dial forward.

“Nine months in, having the structure and programs [in place], we have implementation team meetings, coalition meetings, cabinet meetings,” Banovetz said. “At any given point once a week we can get a table where all three school sectors are there, collaborating.”

Defining ‘rigorous and relevant’ seats

Minnesota Comeback’s goal to create an additional 30,000 “rigorous and relevant” seats for Minneapolis students by 2025 has raised a few eyebrows, as critics speculate over what that means and what it will look like from a logistical standpoint.

Addressing speculation that Minnesota Comeback will somehow pull funds away from district schools in support of charter schools, Fan emphasizes that success will require collaboration across all three school sectors.

“We know those seats are going to be in existing schools today throughout the city and we have to find ways to transform them into great seats,” he said. “There are transformational strategies, startup strategies, scaling and replication strategies. We agree we need to take multiple approaches to this.”

And whatever funding Minnesota Comeback generates to help carry out its work is meant to be new money that’s not already earmarked by funders for existing education programs.

As evidenced by the investment of organizations like the Bush Foundation, Cargill Foundation and McKnight Foundation already, Fan says funders are frustrated with fragmented efforts in the education sector and are looking to Minnesota Comeback to better coordinate their investments. 

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Dozens attended Minnesota Comeback's second coalition meeting.
Minnesota Comeback
Dozens attended Minnesota Comeback’s second coalition meeting.

“We’re trying to just create a framework so that people can work together in a different way than they have in the past and have their efforts be more aligned,” he said.

Using the findings of a report [PDF] conducted by an outside consultant, IFF, Minnesota Comeback came up with a very granular definition of the achievement gap in Minneapolis.

The study categorizes schools based on their state-designated performance status. Schools that receive the Reward or Celebration Eligible designation — based on four standardized measures: proficiency, growth, achievement gap reduction and graduation rates — are in the top 40 percent.  

That’s what Minnesota Comeback means when it comes to adding 30,000 “rigorous” seats: those in schools that have achieved the Reward or Celebration Eligible status. 

Based on 2013-14 enrollment data, the report says there are approximately 53,400 students enrolled in Minneapolis schools. Sixty-seven percent are enrolled in district schools, 22 percent are enrolled in charter schools and the remaining 11 percent are enrolled in independent schools.

Of the 41,933 students who attend public district and charter schools, about 11,000 have access to seats in the 25 schools designated with the Reward and Celebration Eligible status. 

In order to match each student living in Minneapolis with such seats, IFF identified 11 highest-need areas, where 48 percent of the service gap currently exists, concentrated in the northwest and central east neighborhoods of the city. In these areas, the report cites higher levels of poverty, mobility and English language learners, along with lower levels of parental educational attainment.

When it comes to defining “relevant,” however, Fan admits the measure is still a work in progress.

“We know it’s a lot of things to different people, but it should include something around cultural relevance, social-emotional skill building, 21st century skills; it may include something around behavior, teacher retention, community support,” he said. “But we don’t have any of those measures yet, so we need to develop them. Our work is around ‘How do we define it in a way that we can measure it and use it to really fine tune how we define great schools?’ ”

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Parents attending a Minnesota Comeback Public Allies event.
Minnesota Comeback
Parents attending a Minnesota Comeback Public Allies event.

In order to tackle the issue, Minnesota Comeback has created a relevance working group, led by David O’Fallon, president of the Minnesota Humanities Center, which will meet for the first time on April 11.

In the meantime, Fan says Minnesota Comeback feels comfortable taking action because it’s already clear that great schools are going to require teachers, money, buildings and community support.

“How we actually aim these resources at specific schools will vary as we figure out how to fine tune that definition of great. But right now we’re primarily using academic rigor as a starting point.”

Differentiating itself

Since Minnesota Comeback isn’t the first entity to coalesce people around the need to close the achievement gap in Minneapolis, it has a real need to differentiate itself from a few like-minded players, namely Generation NEXT and NAZ.

Currently, representatives from both organizations sit on various Minnesota Comeback committees and Fan serves on the advisory council for Generation NEXT — so collaboration does already exist.

While Fan admits there are certainly some areas of overlap, he says each group tackles the shared goal from a unique angle. For example, NAZ uses family navigators to help support the child both inside and outside of school, addressing things like access to pre-K, and their caregiver’s access to things like employment and health care. Generation NEXT places a greater emphasis on ensuring that students are served well through the most effective programs, whether it be early screening, well-trained literacy tutors, credit tracking for all 9th-graders or postsecondary planning for all seniors.

Minnesota Comeback is focused on schools and systems change — more specifically, the talent pipeline, school facilities, education policies, and the community engagement piece that all impact how well-equipped a school is to support its students — with an interest in replicating best practices to ensure that all students have access to a high-quality seat in the classroom.

“I would say all three of our organizations are fairly young, so no one has collected enough data to say, ‘This is the right approach.’  And even if we did, I think the answer would be we need all to work together,” Fan said. “We realize  that if we don’t provide enough funding and support and resources to the entire ecosystem, and build them up together, we’re really just spending our money inefficiently.”

Tad Piper
Tad Piper

Tad Piper, board co-chair of Minnesota Comeback, has been bringing a businessman’s perspective to conversations around closing education disparities in the Twin Cities for years. He says Minnesota Comeback reinvigorated his interest in trying to tackle such a complex, stubborn issue, and he sees promise in the group’s ability to have a real impact.

“I would be the first one to admit you’ve got to get a lot of different organizations, personalities, rolling in the same direction,” he said. “But there’s a lot of energy behind this. There’s very little finger-pointing.”

Former Minneapolis Public Schools Superintendent Bernadeia Johnson, who sits on Minnesota Comeback’s talent pipeline committee, says there are some big thinkers sitting at the table and those who are vested in the future of this city’s education system would be wise to stay in-the-know with Minnesota Comeback.

“I believe that Minnesota Comeback is a collection of individuals who have influence, power and commitment to get better outcomes for students — especially those who are in poverty, based on race — starting in Minneapolis,” she said.

Comparing Minnesota Comeback to a racecar that’s moving fast, but intentionally, she says the car is adorned with all three school sector logos; Al Fan is sitting in the driver’s seat; and all of the implementation teams are working in the pit.

Former MPS school board chair Alberto Monserrate has also been attending Minnesota Comeback meetings. He’s involved because he senses a new momentum here that can drive change faster through replicating what works in successful schools and engaging the community.

“Right now, we do have some very concrete examples of schools that are working for low-income students of color. It’s about how do we support the schools that are working, and also try to replicate those schools and those teaching methods? I see [Minnesota Comeback] as a way to speed up the process.”

As those collaborating under the support of Minnesota Comeback continue to roll out grants and initiatives, their success hinges on their ability to build trust with the community of parents and teachers they’re looking to serve. 

“I do strongly get the sense at board meetings that it’s an issue that is taken seriously and is of incredible importance to the board,” Bill Graves, a board member and executive director of his family’s foundation, said. “[We’re] strongly interested in working with communities to understand what they see as success and failure in K-12 education.”