The African American Leadership Forum (AALF) Education and Life-Long Work Group recently developed a strategy based on a series of achievement gaps that prevent low-income youth from succeeding in school. Co-chair of the AALF Education Workgroup, Karen Kelly-Ariwoola, and Assistant Director of the City of Minneapolis Department of Human Rights, Michael Browne, hosted candidates who are running for open seats on the Minneapolis School Board to discuss these issues and how we as a community have an obligation to ensure that the next generation is a competitive labor pool and will attract technology-forward companies. The forum was also attended by Carla Bates, Minneapolis School Board Member At-Large, who is up for reelection after her first term. The Education Work Group’s tactic for battling the achievement gap is based on five aspects that affect a child’s ability to succeed in school:
Preparation: A child’s home environment, economic status, emotional and social development, health, and cultural identity are all related to achievement in school. Unfortunately, race often becomes a proxy for larger underlying social forces and factors that contribute to poor performance in school. Minneapolis school board candidates agree that they want to see a school district where children feel safe and know that they have the opportunity to learn.
Alex Phung, District 6 candidate, stressed the importance of encompassing all of the support systems surrounding a child’s academic career and supports increasing school instruction time and giving teachers the flexibility to use bold and innovative strategies. “We don’t necessarily need to eliminate poverty first in order to improve education,” he said. “It’s a complex issue and there are many different avenues to fixing the system.”
Belief: Research shows that the high expectations and the ‘pressure to learn’ from teachers and parents greatly impacts student achievement. Opportunities to engage in more rigorous curriculum choices increases achievement and must be made available to all students, particularly African American students who have historically been denied access to such programs.
Curtis Johnson, District 6 candidate, cited his experience working with kids who do not believe that they can achieve what they see others are achieving. He said that he tries not to ask his students “Are you going college?” But, “Where are you going to college?” It’s a tremendous impact when an authority figure expects them to do it he said. “Minneapolis Public Schools can and should provide the best educational experience so all its students can achieve their full potential…We must be upfront in order to identify the issues and craft solutions that focus on reducing teacher turnover and get quality teachers into underperforming schools,” said Johnson.
Time: Studies show that if African American children enter kindergarten already behind, and spend the same amount of time on a task in school as everybody else, they have an extremely difficult time catching up. Much of the instruction time needed for a student to catch up needs to be made up at home, in after-school tutoring, or in summer school. In order to close the achievement gap, extending the school day and school year will help to reduce the ‘summertime achievement gap.’
Kim Ellison, District 2 candidate, said, “It’s not that students who fail out of public school can’t learn. It’s that they have a lot going on in their life… Change starts at the top with principals holding school teachers accountable for students’ achievement.
Josh Reimnitz, District 4 candidate, emphasized that we are the adults in this
situation, and we are responsible for our children’s education. “Many parents simply do not understand how to help their children succeed in school,” he said.
Reimnitz said he supports a longer school day “because it would allow more time for recess and for what some tend to see as optional learning—such as music and physical education.”
Teaching: Everyone agrees that teacher effectiveness is especially critical for children furthest behind in their academic growth from year to year. Current market incentives are working against teachers who are willing to work in priority schools. Attracting a new generation of highly qualified teachers will require altering the value proposition of the profession and we must remove the barriers that prevent high-achieving graduates and professionals, who are interested in teaching but do not have an education degree, from entering the teaching field. Low-income and African American children are disproportionately affected by having inexperienced teachers, high teacher turnover, and teachers teaching outside their field of study.
Doug Mann, candidate for the Minneapolis School Board At-Large, said he is painfully aware of the gross inequities that exist due to high teacher turnover and the education access gap. “Student over-exposure to new teachers results in a greatly watered down curriculum,” he said. “All students benefit from having experienced teachers…Districts that are able to stabilize their staff see significant improvements in student performance.”
Leadership: Research also shows that school districts headed by strong superintendents and school principals, have been the most effective in closing the achievement gap for their students. Children need to be able to see a light at the end of the tunnel through job creation and be prepared for a future that none of us can even imagine. There are great leaders in the principals who advocate for their school and set the academic climate of high expectations, they make sure that parents are involved.
Darrell Washington, District 4 candidate, said that access to quality, early education and parent teacher-contact are unbelievably important, and complex, issues. “I believe my own daughters were prepared for kindergarten in public schools because of the high expectations my partner and I set for them,” he said. “There traditionally has been an issue of trust, of people believing in the education system and accepting it. I am optimistic that we are moving in the right direction but that we are not moving fast enough. It’s important to have leadership at the top that show they care.