MINNEAPOLIS - The first day of school at Lucy Laney Community School started with smiles and high fives when it could have started with staggering statistics.
Around 98.9 percent of the estimated 700 students at the north Minneapolis K-8 school live below poverty lines, but the reality was momentarily forgotten when the school buses rolled up and fathers stood up on the front lines.
"Good morning, good morning!" shouted KG Wilson, a north Minneapolis community activist, greeting kids as they walked off the bus. "Have a great year man, it's going to be the best year! Look at that smile!"
Fathers and men from all over the community lined the sidewalk and cheered and even danced to the beat of drums while handing out school supplies. Wilson spearheaded the effort to show support for kids living in the achievement gap, many who have no father figures in their lives. He never knew his father and understands the struggles.
"This was the vision, this was the dream, and the kids are inspired," said Wilson. "This what is needed, that love that might be missing in the home and the community where they live at."
Inspired to change the cycle in his community, he modeled the rally after participating in the Million Father March in his native Chicago, an effort to involve men in the education of African American children.
"This is beautiful to me. I love this," said Isaiah Clark, a father of four Lucy Laney students. "Some of these kids don't see their father and now some of their fathers are here today. Some, they haven't seen their father in a couple months, a year."
Principal Mauri Melander was on board with the effort, and said the presence of father figures makes a difference for her struggling students, with an estimated 80-90 percent of children at Lucy Laney not meeting expected proficiency standards.
"I feel like they are my own children. I feel so connected to them and invested in them, that sometimes I can feel like a single mom with the kids sometimes, you kind of put it all on your shoulders, you know there is men in the community, you know there is dads in the community. But you never know they have been given an opportunity to really be present," said Melander.
The men ended the rally in prayer and pledged to mentor Lucy Laney students throughout the school year. A new beginning for many, and for KG Wilson, a breakthrough after learning the rally opened doors to bring all parents back to school.
"I'm never here and I'm never involved," one mother told the crowd. "But what I saw here today made me smile and I appreciate that. You made me smile today."
To help close the achievement gap this school year, Principal Melander said there will be two teachers dedicated to each classroom at least 50 percent of the time. She said not only fathers, but the entire community is welcome to help her students succeed.
"The doors are open. You are welcome, you are invited," she said.