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Promise grant will allow Neighborhood Achievement Zone to scale up north Minneapolis ‘cradle to career’ program

"Though this grant is great, I want to remind us that the needs in the zone are even greater," said Northside Achievement Zone director Sondra Samuels.
Courtesy of NAZ
“Though this grant is great, I want to remind us that the needs in the zone are even greater,” said Northside Achievement Zone director Sondra Samuels.

Tornadoes, foreclosures, homicides and an unemployment rate that won’t quit climbing — it’s about time the prize patrol visited north Minneapolis.

Yesterday, the Obama administration announced that the Northside Achievement Zone (NAZ), a little-known experiment aimed at breaking the cycle of poverty in north Minneapolis, was in line for a $28 million Promise Neighborhoods grant.

The money will allow the 8-year-old organization to dramatically scale up its promising “cradle to career” strategy for ensuring that every child born within an 18-by-13 square-block area on the city’s near north side finishes school college-ready.

“With this award again we’ll be able to scale up in some unprecedented ways,” said Sondra Samuels, NAZ’s chief executive officer. “This is a monumental responsibility — a monumental responsibility we don’t take lightly.”

Speaking at Minneapolis’ Elizabeth Hall International Elementary, Samuels was flanked by both of Minnesota’s senators, Rep. Keith Ellison, Mayor R.T. Rybak and Minneapolis Public Schools Superintendent Bernadeia Johnson, among others.

Second piece of good news for Minnesota
It’s the second time in as many work days that Minnesota educators, accustomed to looking on as other communities enjoy the spoils of the administration’s funding competitions, have learned that finally, they were in line for a financial boost—and some hard-won vindication.

On Friday, after years of hard-fought internal political battles over the future of pre-K here, state officials learned that Minnesota will receive $45 million in Race to the Top funds aimed at helping strengthen a statewide system for fostering quality early-childhood education programming. Puerto Rico, the District of Columbia and 35 states had applied; nine won.

In terms of vindication, yesterday’s announcement was every bit as sweet. Last year, after Obama announced the Promise Neighborhoods Initiative, NAZ was passed over for one of its initial $500,000 planning grants.

Yesterday, it was one of just five winners selected from a field of 200 applicants for full-scale “implementation” funding.

(St. Paul, which received one of the 21 planning grants, was not so lucky.)

Both awards can be credited to the efforts of extraordinarily broad, creative community coalitions.

Northside Achievement Zone Logo
Courtesy of NAZ

Inspired by Harlem Children’s Zone
The Promise Neighborhoods Initiative was inspired by the Harlem Children’s Zone, which began in the 1990s as an effort to support children on a single, impoverished Harlem block literally from the cradle to a career, with a comprehensive support system ranging from parenting workshops for new families to health care, job-placement services for parents, all-day preschool and high-quality K-12 options.

The brainchild of charismatic activist, educator and author Geoffrey Canada, the zone’s subsequent success closing the achievement gap for children living on 60 Harlem blocks two years ago prompted President Barack Obama to announce plans to encourage its replication.

NAZ was already on track to do so. Founded five years earlier as the nonprofit PEACE Foundation, its original mission was to combat violence in north Minneapolis. While in the process of building a constituency among area residents who typically don’t join such efforts, its grassroots leaders quickly realized that educational achievement was the ultimate remedy.

In 2008, the group changed its name and its approach. Today, its 60 member organizations and schools are focused on creating a “culture of achievement” within a geographic area drawn on the basis of the number of residents who were on probation, receiving Minnesota Family Investment Program aid (the funding formerly referred to as welfare) and the number of police calls.

The zone stretches from Interstate 94 on the east to Penn Avenue on the west, and from 35th Avenue on the north to West Broadway on the south. About half of its 15,000 residents are children, 43 percent of whom live in poverty. One fourth of residents are unemployed and 80 percent are racial or ethnic minorities.

‘Connectors’ work with about 150 families
Right now, NAZ has six coaches, or “connectors,” area residents or people with strong ties to the neighborhood who have recruited and work with about 150 families. Sitting down together, they create family goals. As goals are met, connectors push for new ones.

Parenting skills are shared at a family academy, and parents are guaranteed help with housing, jobs and behavioral health. Rather than troop from one waiting room to another, families can choose to have their connectors help load all of their information into an online NAZ system where it is available to all of the organizations they may work with.

If this sounds like a newfangled way of describing a phalanx of social workers, it’s not. It’s a model for getting everyone from expectant parents to service providers focused on the end goal of academic achievement as a remedy to poverty and violence.

But because north Minneapolis kids are scattered throughout schools across the west metro are, NAZ has designed ways to work both with mainline public and charter schools in the area that serve lots of zone kids and with outside schools that don’t. 

To that end, each family also gets an academic case manager who works with both home and school to track and support student progress. A number of area schools and early-ed providers have joined the “high-touch” effort, which also offers afterschool opportunities, incentives for individual achievement and student mentoring.

Will be able to serve 1,200 families
Right now, NAZ has an annual budget of $1 million in privately raised funds. Over the next five years the federal funds will allow it to expand its corps of connectors to 40 serving 3,000 kids in 1,200 families. The Wilder Foundation and the University of Minnesota’s Center for Early Education and Development (CEED) will spearhead evaluation.

All of this is what NAZ proposed last year when the Obama administration was handing out planning grants, and when the start-up money failed to arrive, Samuels and her team went ahead anyhow.

“Sondra Samuels said, ‘Well, we can’t just not do the work,'” Pam Costain, CEO of AchieveMpls, said yesterday. “Sondra was the engine that kept it going.”

“We did this work ourselves,” Katie Murphy, NAZ’s communications director, agreed. “We didn’t wait for the government to do it for us. We went out and raised the money.”

And they know precisely how they will spend each dollar, she added. “You can’t imagine what a shot in the arm this is for our organization,” said Murphy. “We have a really solid plan. We know exactly how to scale up.”

Jim Shelton
Jim Shelton

At the announcement yesterday Jim Shelton, assistant deputy U.S. education decretary for the Office of Innovation and Improvement, quoted the line from NAZ’s application that tipped the scales: “And if it doesn’t work, we’ll keep trying until it does.”

When her turn in the spotlight came, Samuels agreed.

“Though this grant is great, I want to remind us that the needs in the zone are even greater,” she said. “It’s not time for any of us to pull back. We can celebrate just today.”

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Comments (1)

  1. Submitted by Lynnell Mickelsen on 12/20/2011 - 10:43 pm.

    Congratulations to Sondra Samuels and her whole team. I am so happy for them!

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