Follow the mayor of Minneapolis around and it quickly becomes apparent that nowhere — not surfing the crowd at First Avenue or selling his city as a same-sex wedding destination — is R.T. Rybak as in his element as when he’s interacting with youth. And his enthusiasm for their potential, individual and collective, is infectious.
Nor has Rybak been shy about spending his political capital to call for tough policy changes he believes will help to close the achievement gap so students can achieve that potential.
There were cheers and sighs of relief all around Wednesday when Rybak announced that at 1:46 p.m. Jan. 2, immediately after his successor is sworn in, he will walk the two blocks to his new office, where he will take over as chief executive of the ambitious but little-known Generation Next.
‘It was just crystal clear’
“There were a lot of options, but I just kept coming back to where my passions are,” Rybak said in an interview. “It was just crystal clear.”
In recent weeks Rybak, first elected in 2001, has been candid about his concern that he’s leaving office at a juncture when a number of controversial education reforms are on the table. In an exclusive interview with MinnPost about the education platforms of the current mayoral candidates, Rybak vowed to “double-down.”
At the time of the interview, Rybak hadn’t thought of the open job at Generation Next, whose board he serves on now. When the opening presented itself, it seemed perfect.
“My job is just to do what I’ve been doing for years,” he said. “Holding our feet to the fire on some shockingly poor results with poor kids and kids of color, and working to raise a generation that’s going to be effective in a global economy.
“If we can pull this off,” Rybak added, “we soar.”
A co-founder of STEP-UP program
As one of the co-founders of AchieveMPLS’ STEP-UP college and career readiness program, Rybak has had a hand over the last decade in giving 18,000 Minneapolis youth — 50 percent of them immigrants, 90 percent impoverished — real-world internships that make the rewards of college tangible. And by extension, students more likely to persist in working toward them.
A number of teens have worked directly in his office; graduates speak movingly of the impact it made when the mayor told them that their multilingual capabilities make them a potentially prized commodity to Minnesota employers.
Rybak has also been active in the overhaul of the district’s high schools and has been a vocal and visible support for a number of education reforms that are politically risky for MPS leaders. In an effort to see the work continue, he has said the candidates who want to succeed him need to be active in the arena out of the gate.
When he assumes his new job, Rybak will become the latest of a series of elected officials whose experiences energized them to go on to education-related posts in the nonprofit sector.
Former Mayor Don Fraser is still active as one of the leaders of the longstanding Committee on the Achievement Gap. Former Minneapolis School Board Chair Pam Costain is CEO of AchieveMPLS, the district’s nonprofit partner. Her former fellow board members Peggy Flanagan and Chris Stewart made similar shifts, Flanagan to the top job at the Children’s Defense Fund Minnesota and Stewart to the helm of the African American Leadership Forum (AALF).
“The things that RT brings that others do not is incredible connections,” said Costain. “I think there’s honestly no public figure who cares more about kids. I’m just excited to have that passion.”
Identifying success, promoting replication
Launched 11 months ago, Generation Next is an effort to focus disparate efforts to close the racial and socioeconomic achievement gap in Minneapolis and St. Paul by identifying the most effective local efforts and promoting their replication.
Modeled on Cincinnati’s STRIVE initiative, the effort makes the Twin Cities the eighth Cradle to Career Community nationwide. The commonality in each of the eight communities is to set a small number of measurable goals, collect data from every sector of the community and report back out what’s having an impact and what’s not.
There’s no shortage of groups working to improve education in the Twin Cities and rivers of money directed at finding solutions. But taken as a whole, the efforts are random; no entity is working to sort effective initiatives from lagging ones and to see that funds are directed where they can do the most good.
With the help of the Wilder Foundation’s researchers, Generation Next is first cataloging Twin Cities programs and then analyzing data on outcomes. Its partner-members include a broad cross-section of leaders of local education, civic, philanthropic and business organizations.
The effort’s leaders include the presidents of the U of M, the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system, the private nonprofit college community, Target, 3M, General Mills, Cargill, the mayors and school districts of both central cities, the Minnesota Minority Education Partnership, the Minneapolis, St. Paul and Bush Foundations and the United Way.
The group’s work, difficult to describe to a general audience, began immediately after its launch last December. Seven months into the job, however, Executive Director Michael Goar was recruited away by Minneapolis Public Schools to be Superintendent Bernadeia Johnson’s top deputy — a post many agree he’s perfect for.
Like Johnson, Goar is a former protégé of former MPS Superintendent Carol Johnson and a key player in her lauded effort in Boston to create “portfolio” schools that have both more freedom and more accountability. Johnson is attempting to institute something similar here; when MPS started recruiting Goar, Rybak encouraged him to take the job.
It didn’t occur to him he’d be creating an opportunity for himself, Rybak said. The work continued without Goar, but the organization fell off lots of radar screens.
“A lot has been done already,” said Rybak. “I’m able to capitalize on the work others have done and raise the visibility of the organization.”
Rybak’s announcement drew immediate applause from education advocates who had both feared losing his high-profile voice and who were anxious for Generation Next to truly deliver.
‘It raises the profile of the organization’
“I’m psyched,” said Chris Stewart, executive director of the African American Leadership Forum (AALF), whose education working group first began working to make the Twin Cities the eighth community where the approach has been tried. “I think what this does for Generation Next is it raises the profile of the organization. [Rybak] has the potential to be an effective agent for change.”
General Mills Senior Vice President for External Relations Kim Nelson, a member of the AALF working group and now a member of Generation Next’s board, attended the Wednesday press conference where Rybak formally announced his plans.
“R.T. really is a national leader within this particular area,” she said. “He’s truly one of those once-in-a-generation inspirational leaders in our community. He inspires children and adults alike.”
When Generation Next began its national search for a new leader in August, members knew they needed someone with vigor and optimism, said University of Minnesota President Eric Kaler, also present: “It turns out that person was right under our nose.”
Vice Chair of the Democratic National Committee until 2016, Rybak brushed aside questions at the press conference about whether he might again seek office.
‘I’ve got my hands full’
“I’m in the middle of one of the most important things I’ve ever done in my life,” he said. “I’ve got my hands full.”
It’s not hard to imagine that for Rybak, continuing to work with young people is the higher calling. Although he has come particularly to prize his time with them since his own children left for college, Rybak said, his staff has always known that spending time with kids recharges his batteries.
“That’s really always been the case,” Rybak said. “If I’m worn down or stressed out, they say, ‘Just send him out with the kids,’ or, ‘He’s wearing down, have him go read to some third-graders.’ ”