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Partnerships for ‘our kids’ deserve support

Robert Putnam, the acclaimed Harvard professor and author of the 2000 best-seller “Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community,” was in Duluth recently to promote his new book, “Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis.”

Both books emphasize the problem of growing isolation and community fragmentation for American society. His latest book asserts that this civic disengagement is toxic for children, particularly the fast-growing percentage growing up in poverty. Putnam implores each of us as individuals to start seeing all the children in our midst as “our kids” and to work together in their behalf.

Education Week boiled down Putnam’s many recommendations for closing our alarming gaps in education success down to three strategies, including this one: “Build more community-school partnerships to provide health, social services and enrichment activities for students in schools.”

Minnesota is ahead of the curve on this front. A movement toward community education partnerships is already underway, in both rural and urban neighborhoods and regions. These partnerships are distinguished by local control and highly organized multi-sector collaboration, including local businesses, philanthropies, parents, schools and colleges, out-of-school service providers, and social service agencies. The partnerships tend to focus specifically on closing gaps for poor children and communities of color but also on improving results for all children, from birth to career launch, and not just in that limited space when they are in the classroom and the K-12 system.

As Republican and DFL leaders seek compromise on the wide differences that separate their education funding bills, agreement on community partnerships could help break the logjam. A bill providing modest funds for these efforts advanced this session in both legislative chambers, with encouraging bipartisan support. Funding for five specific community partnerships is still alive in the conference committee process.

These partnerships and their communities are Every Hand Joined (in Red Wing); Northfield Promise; the Northside Achievement Zone in Minneapolis; the St. Paul Promise Neighborhood; and Partner for Student Success, based in St. Cloud and including surrounding school districts.

Each partnership is founded on the certainty that the larger community will suffer economically if ever larger numbers of children and students continue to lag behind others in school and career readiness. The partnerships have coalesced, in a rather rare and inspiring display of Greater Minnesotans and urban folks finding common cause, to build awareness and support for their movement. And they come armed with data and studies showing very encouraging gains, in reading comprehension and other measures of student success, for students in the communities being served.

Although the partnerships  vary widely in demographics — from mostly white but increasingly diverse and disadvantaged youth populations in Red Wing and Northfield, to communities of color on Minneapolis’ North Side and St. Paul’s neighborhoods just west of the state capitol — they share the following important characteristics:

  • Each takes a holistic approach to students, families and community development. A key principle is that support must begin well before kindergarten and continue well after 12th grade, beginning from birth and sustaining to career launch.
  • Each focuses on community-wide “wraparound” services, ensuring health and social support according to each child’s needs, with great schools at the center.
  • Each is results-driven, tracking key indicators, not just high-stakes standardized tests, and reporting back to the community. A conviction that all “our kids” must do better and succeed pervades the partnerships.
  • Each enjoys broad support and strong participation by nonprofits, school districts, higher education institutions, and business, including chambers of commerce. The end zone is postsecondary completion and career readiness, an obvious common goal with local businesses.

Both the urban neighborhood partnerships and the more regional Greater Minnesota partnerships are each part of much larger national networks that are gaining ground in many states.

The Promise Neighborhood model is up and running with federal funding in at least 20 urban areas, but sharp reductions in that funding are expected, necessitating greater state and local support. A total of five regional Greater Minnesota partnerships (including three mentioned above, and two others serving the Itasca County area in north-central Minnesota and Austin in southern Minnesota) are part of the national Strive Together network. This network now includes more than 60 communities coast-to-coast, in both sprawling urban metropolitan areas (including the Twin Cities’ Generation Next partnership led by former Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak) and smaller towns and rural areas.

Reflecting the common ground these two models have found in Minnesota, the two national organizations produced a policy paper recently that describes how they can and should work together “to fundamentally change how they support children’s success” through “systemic transformation.”

The executive director of the Strive Network, Jeff Edmondson, recently took note of Putnam’s latest book and captured how its main point was reflected in the growth of community partnerships:

“This shift toward seeing all children as our kids [emphasis added]is at the heart of … collective impact work. It is the inspiration for building cross-sector partnerships that create accountability and mutual responsibility for the success of every child.”

The 2015 Minnesota Legislature should seize the opportunity to give a boost to this nascent movement that features local control, accountability, and a blossoming of community spirit for all our kids. It has become painfully obvious that individuals and institutions cannot meet the challenges of “our kids” if they go it alone.

Dane Smith is the president of Growth & Justice, a research and advocacy organization focused on a broader and more inclusive economic prosperity for Minnesota.

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