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Generation Next plan: Start screenings at age 3, tutoring in 3rd grade, life planning in high school

R.T. Rybak: “We are focused on five outcomes: Every child ready for kindergarten; meets benchmarks in third-grade reading; meets math benchmarks by eighth grade; graduates from high school and post-secondary certification.”

Rybak: “We have admired the problem of the achievement gap in this community for a long time. And have really needed a tangible battle plan with very specific things we can do right now that have an impact in the future.”
MinnPost file photo by Terry Gydesen

When former Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak left office in January, it was for a job in an office a few short blocks away leading an audacious initiative that desperately needed his high profile.

Generation Next has lofty goals. They’re modeled on broad-based efforts in other communities to create one clearinghouse for education data and use that information to replicate successful initiatives in public and charter schools in Minneapolis and St. Paul.

Fast-forward seven months from Rybak’s first day on the job. The group is set to roll out its first three concrete actions at a forum Monday at the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey School of Public Affairs. Among the several hundred attendees will be Co-Chairs Eric Kaler, U of M president; Kim Nelson, senior vice president of external relations at General Mills; the superintendents of both Minneapolis and St. Paul public schools; Minnesota Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius; and Minneapolis Mayor Betsy Hodges.

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Rybak took time out of prepping for the event last week to give MinnPost a preview. What follows is an edited transcript of that conversation.

MinnPost: Walk us through the highlights of Monday’s Generation Next presentation.

R.T. Rybak: We are focused on five outcomes: Every child ready for kindergarten; meets benchmarks in third-grade reading; meets math benchmarks by eighth grade; graduates from high school and post-secondary certification. Actions on three of them will be released on Monday and two more by the end of the year.

We are going to align multiple partners to make sure every 3-year-old has a comprehensive health and developmental screening and is then connected to opportunities that support school readiness.

The counties, the state, the many early childhood providers have all come together to say it makes dramatically more sense to identify any issue and help a child at 3 than to not know that there is a health, social-emotional or cognitive issue challenging a child until, say, the third grade when they have developed a behavior problem or have been put in a special education classroom.

Number two: In third grade reading we have spent many months with the major tutoring groups that partner with our schools. We have gotten them to develop a common protocol, so all tutors are trained in best practices and we are going to align that with school literacy strategies.

And in terms of high school graduation, every student develops a post secondary life plan with an adult trained in college and career readiness.

In the case of both reading and high school graduation, this has involved taking many people who are doing really good work that is not aligned and finding ways for them to develop a common protocol so they all learn from each other.

In the case of ready for kindergarten, much of the work involves connecting physicians and clinics, school districts and early childhood providers and families to send a message that should be simple and clear: Every child should have a health and developmental screening at 3.

These outcomes are the result of several hundred people talking over the course of more than a year about three major touch points that can help close the achievement gap. We will be coming back with eighth-grade math and college graduation in the fall.

That’s half of what Generation Next does. The other half: Because we have all of the major funders in education and youth at the table, we want the work of those people to do a better job of aligning funding, both from the government and the foundation sector.

On Monday we will be [announcing] one example of that where two major funders have come together to align their work to reflect those outcomes.

We have admired the problem of the achievement gap in this community for a long time. And have really needed a tangible battle plan with very specific things we can do right now that have an impact in the future. We are delivering a series of actions that we will be taking that are the result of building consensus at the ground level. That is a good start.

MP: I wonder if you could say more about the complexity of something that sounds very simple, such as screening all 3-year-olds.

RTR: In Minneapolis in 2013-2014, about 24 percent of 3-year-olds and about 80 percent of kindergartners were screened prior to enrollment. In St. Paul those numbers were 18 percent of 3-year-olds and 90 percent of kindergartners. If you do the math, that leaves roughly 8,000 3-year-olds who are not screened in this community.

Imagine that we could cut that in half — that 4,000 more children were screened. Imagine that in that group of 4,000 there are several hundred who have problems with hearing or eyesight or other physical issues with address early and a number who have some social-emotional issues.

What a huge impact we could have on something that otherwise shows up as a child who has a behavior problem or ends up in a special-education classroom. Or who is just doing very poorly until we happen to identify that in third grade, at which point they have missed all of that learning.

Screening sounds simple. But the system now is complex. Physicians do some screenings, but they are not always reported back to the district. Or to someone who might create an opportunity for a child who would otherwise be left behind.

You have districts doing screenings. That is helpful, but operates differently in both cities. You have some ready-for-kindergarten providers who are very engaged in this work, like Head Start.

An example we are going to use on Monday is a mom of twins. She was worried about one of them not making progress, that there was a cognitive issue. The child was screened, and what she had was actually a speech issue. So there was an intervention on her speech, and because of that she was able to start kindergarten ready. Otherwise she could’ve been misdiagnosed as needing special education.

That’s one example of something that could happen on a much larger scale. We know that children who are in special-education classrooms are disproportionately children of color. So are those who are suspended. So if you roll back the clock before they start school, and we take a very clear look at all kids, we will help every child.

MP: And it is far less cost-effective to try to remediate these issues once a child is in special ed.

RTR: Dramatically. Also one hour of a child misdiagnosed in a special-ed classroom is one hour when a child should be learning math or reading or moving with the rest of their classmates.

You can’t make up for that lost time. It’s wonderful if something is diagnosed by third grade, but by third grade you’ve missed everything that happened from kindergarten up until then. We just shouldn’t have to have kids do that.

A lot of it is going to be engaging families to see that a well-child screening at 3 is not about being intrusive. It’s about opening the doors to opportunities for your children. A lot of it is going to be in the very detailed connections between clinics and early childhood care and education and home-visiting programs.

That’s the kind of work some are already doing, but we are going to have to dramatically increase capacity. Much of this is already being done in [Minneapolis’] Northside Achievement Zone. We want to help increase capacity in [St. Paul’s] Promise Neighborhood as well as in other parts of town that do not have the same geographic intervention.

MP: It’s a revelation to most people that teaching basic reading skills is a specialized art and that unless it is done in the earliest years a child cannot progress on to succeed any other subject. Which is a long-winded set up to: Why tutoring?

RTR: We must hit the benchmark for children to read by third grade, because after that every bit of learning is based on being able to read.

We are very interested in the innovations taking place in the school districts, including the increased acknowledgment that reading is a specialty that needs specific instruction. We are supportive of what the districts are trying to do on that.

What we are trying to say is literacy can be developed every waking hour. The districts are already moving, and I think they acknowledge that they have to move more aggressively.

The really exciting work has been sitting these long meetings with people who have tutoring programs and other programs that are compatible but have not been aligned and to hear them begin to work together. It’s really powerful. It’s largely because of their own work. We have facilitated, but they have led.

Now we are saying we are going to share what we have learned together so that every child gets the benefit of what we know. That’s a big deal.

MP: So when you say tutors, are you also talking about other kinds of out-of-school time providers?

RTR: Absolutely. I probably should’ve said all out-of-school tutors are trained in the best practices and aligned with school practices. A school might have three or four organizations that come to them and say we can help a child read. It’s dramatically better for the child if all of those partners are not only working together but are sharing best practices.

In addition, we are going to pick a couple of schools — one in each district and one charter — to really work even more intensely with.

We also have to recognize that there are no children in the system who are at fourth or eighth or 12th grade who are not meeting the benchmarks. And we have not done enough collectively as a community to help those children who are not meeting the benchmarks and who are, without more intervention, going to graduate deficient.

MP: What about the high school graduation portion of this?

RTR: Right now Minneapolis schools use a curriculum called “My Life Plan.” In St. Paul there’s something called the six-year plan. Both thankfully happen to use the same technology platform. Our goal is to unify that platform so that we can run reports on who has completed their plan and also on who has had help not just from their family or counselors, but from some of the great out-of-school partners.

The goal is that every child completes this with an adult — in addition to their parents — who is a trusted and trained college and career counselor. What tremendous organizations we have in this community: Project Success, College Possible, STEP-UP, AchieveMPLS, Genesis Works … I could go on and on.

So what do we as practitioners on the ground believe we know collectively about it? We are trying to get those organizations to have a common approach to walking a child through how to complete a life plan.

And we have a common technology platform so we can run a report that will help us determine which one of these approaches works best and which of our children are not being served.

MP: My last question is in fact about your data collection function. It’s often said that Minnesota’s education systems are data-rich and information-poor.

RTR: That’s a good way of putting it. We do have a lot of data in this community. But we have done a much better job in looking at what I would call forensic data about what’s wrong. And have not gotten enough information about what’s working into the hands of the people who are doing the work in real time. That is a big part of what we’re positioning ourselves to do.

We believe it is essential to help this community understand why we have one of the largest achievement gaps in the country and what we are going to do about it. To that end, we have taken several steps to be able to understand this issue better and to measure the outcomes we have.

We have deepened our partnership with Wilder. We have dramatically deepen our partnership with the University of Minnesota, including its educational psychology department and all the great researchers there to bring their work closer to implementation.

The third thing we have done — which is terrifically important — is that we have co-funded data positions in both districts. Part of that is simply that we wanted to give the districts better ability to understand what’s going to help move the dial.

We want three outcomes. We want to know which out-of-school programs are best preparing children for kindergarten. We want to know which reading programs, in school and out-of-school, are moving the dial. And we want to know which out-of-school partners are helping to move the needle in college graduation.

Taking this macro approach to these huge issues behind the achievement gap, but also getting really targeted information on specific actions we are proposing, will help us determine whether what we are doing is moving the dial.

In addition, we are having more and more impact on making sure that the work of funders aligns with this. We have built much broader coalition. We expect a few hundred people to be present Monday.

People are realizing that it is possible to have a common agenda and it is possible to win on something we’ve been losing for a long time.