MINNEAPOLIS -- Community leaders in north Minneapolis are embarking on a major initiative, modeled after a successful program in Harlem, N.Y., to combat violence by focusing on education.
They are aiming their resources at a section of north Minneapolis known for high crime; an area that is now dubbed the Northside Achievement Zone, or NAZ.
"We're all making a commitment and guarantee that if you live in this zone, your child will graduate from high school and go to college," said Sondra Samuels, chief executive officer of NAZ.
NAZ is pooling the resources of north Minneapolis schools and about 50 community organizations to give families the tools needed to succeed in school.
The goal is to close the massive black-white achievement gap that starts in elementary school and continues to grow through high school. In Minneapolis Public Schools, the reading proficiency rate for African-American students in third through eighth grades is 32 percent. The math proficiency rate for those students is 22 percent.
"It makes it twice, sometimes three times as hard for children to achieve because they're always in catch-up mode," said Andre Dukes, NAZ engagement coordinator.
As a result, the four-year graduation rate for black students in Minneapolis is just 33.5 percent, according to state figures. The same rate is 69.5 percent for white students. (A different measure of the graduation rate, which considers a smaller number of students -- only those who graduated and dropped out -- says 67 percent of African American students and 93 percent of white students graduated from Minneapolis Public Schools in 2009. While those numbers are higher, the achievement gap still exists.)
How NAZ works
To turn those numbers around, NAZ will focus on an area that is 18 blocks by 13 blocks. The zone runs from Penn Avenue east to Interstate 94, and Broadway Avenue north to 35th Avenue. About 7500 kids currently live in the zone.
More than 100 families have already signed up for a pilot project. Those families are assigned a NAZ connector, who works closely with parents and students to find out what families need to make their kids successful.
"Whatever it is you want to do in life, we can find the resources to assist you with making it happen," said Jewelean Jackson, a NAZ connector currently working with six families.
The connectors work hand-in-hand with community organizations to help families reach their goals. If a student needs a role model, mentoring programs will help find one. If families are searching for a consistent home to avoid constantly moving in and out of the zone, housing organizations will step in. If parents want early childhood education programs to make sure their kids do not fall behind before Kindergarten, NAZ connectors will get them signed up.
NAZ connector Doris Young recently brought books to a young mother who only had one book in the house.
"Northside Achievement Zone is saying that with education, options and opportunities, you can determine your fate, you can do better, you can move forward," Jackson said.
Harlem Children's Zone
NAZ is modeled after the Harlem Children's Zone, where kids in one of New York's poorest communities are surrounded by a series of programs, from baby classes and preschools to charter schools and after-school programs.
Studies show that students in the Harlem Children's Zone have closed the black-white achievement gap. Their math and english scores beat city and state averages.
The success of Harlem's program prompted President Barack Obama to create funding for Promise Neighborhoods. Up to 20 grants, worth $500,000, will be given to communities that are creating their own initiatives to combat poverty and crime by focusing on education. (To receive the grant, communities must also secure a $250,000 matching grant.)
North Minneapolis is one of many communities applying for a Promise Neighborhood grant. Recipients will be announced later this year.
Even if NAZ does not get a grant, organizers plan to move forward with their plans. NAZ has a $1.2 million budget this year and has raised thousands of dollars through donations from various donors, along with corporate and foundation grants.
An incredible goal
The thought of sending her kids to college means a lot to Valerie Cunningham, a mother of four. She never finished school.
"I had my first child at a young age so I had to make a choice: Am I going to stay in school? Or am I gonna work?" she said while wiping away tears. "I choose to work."
She wants a different outcome for her kids, which is why she signed up for NAZ's pilot program.
"To see one of my children or all of my children go to college, to go further than what I went, that's a blessing," Cunningham said.
As NAZ gets started, connectors are surveying 400 random homes in the zone to measure the communities thoughts on their families, children and neighborhoods. For example, they are asked how far they think their children will go in school. They are also asked if they think north Minneapolis is a safe place to raise a child.
"Not this neighborhood, but you can try," replied one mother.
With time, they hope to change attitudes.
"We want to make sure all of her kids here go to college," NAZ connector Mario told that mother. "We don't stop at high school no more around here."
Incentives play a role in getting parents to participate in NAZ programs. Parents who agree to take the survey get a $15 gift card to Cub Foods. But the greatest incentive, community leaders hope, is getting kids to college.
"It's about families, it's about community and it's about schools," Samuels told a group of supporters during a recent forum. "It's about time for none of these entities to have any excuses for the failure of our children."
Samuels thinks it's time for parents and community leaders to take responsibility for their kids' future. By shrinking the achievement gap, she hopes to lower the murder rate and make sure demography does not determine their destiny.
(Copyright 2010 by KARE. All Rights Reserved.)