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Closing the achievement gap

LITTLE FALLS — Closing achievements gaps in education isn’t just about student scores on math or reading tests. It’s about the health of communities.

That was the repeated message Thursday at the Equity and Excellence in Education Central Lakes Summit. The session brought together a diverse leadership from education, business and nonprofits, along with elected officials at the Initiative Foundation in Little Falls.

A panel discussion looked at what it will take to close the gap in the central Minnesota region, looking specifically at communities of Brainerd, Mille Lacs and Long Prairie.

Panelists said it wasn’t a matter of blame or shame, but after looking at hard numbers in achievement gaps the focus should be placed on working together to solve the issue to benefit the health of the entire community.

The achievement gap won’t go away if people do the same thing year after year, said Rep. Carlos Mariani Rosa, DFL-St. Paul, executive director of Minnesota Minority Education Partnership. Race equity will be reached, he said, when there can no longer be predictions of achievements based on a student’s skin color. Achieving that means arriving at a much stronger community, he said, and a much stronger state.

Achievement gaps, which may translate to lower high school graduation scores and ability to earn a living wage, also affects what people contribute back to the community in taxes.

An individual with no high school diploma may earn $24,300 annually, taking home $19,600 after taxes, according to the College Board, Education Pays, 2010.

An individual with a high school degree may earn $33,800 annually or $26,700 after taxes. The College Board reports those with some college may earn $33,800 annually and take home $26,700. With a bachelor’s degree, the College Board reported the earning power increases to $55,700 a year or $42,700 after taxes. However, not everyone with a bachelor’s degree may be earning that following the recession.

The presentation noted McKinsey and Company research that the education achievement gap imposes the equivalent of a permanent economic recession on the U.S.

According to the state Department of Education in 2011, American Indian children scored 56.5 percent in statewide reading accountability test proficiency trends. Black children scored 54.1 percent. Asian/Pacific Islander children scored 65.3 percent. Hispanic children scored 53.7 percent. White children scored 80.9 percent.

Panelists pointed to the economic need to close the gap as the baby boomer generation marches toward retirement age. Even in the Brainerd and Baxter area, employers point to an inability to fill highly skilled jobs in manufacturing and technology even as the community suffers from high unemployment as workers do not have the necessary skill level.

Dr. Kathy Annette, Blandin Foundation president, was raised in Red Lake. Annette said in order for a community to change people have to have hope.

“Hope is believing a different future is possible,” Annette said. “Hope is the engine that powers change. ... If you make a difference, if that achievement gap is narrowed, think of the stories we can tell then.”

Mary Sam, director of diversity, equity and tribal relations at Central Lakes College, said if the state of Minnesota put the same energy into education and economic development it put into the Vikings stadium, think of what could be accomplished.

“This is about saving the state of Minnesota,” Sam said.

Keith Lester, superintendent of Brooklyn Center Schools, a diverse district with 80 percent poverty, said what’s needed is action. Too much time, he said, is spent on studies and talking to the point where people lose hope. Change, he said, is difficult but people have to show what good can come out of that change.

“We don’t have time to waste with more studying,” Lester said.

Sam said they invited people to this first summit mindful the numbers and data they would be sharing with the group would be difficult to look at. Participants said the numbers representing the gaps between whites and minorities were sobering.

Dennis Olson, Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe commissioner of education, said the numbers are more than just a math score or a single reading test result. The numbers represent children and what is happening in their lives, in their surrounding communities and what’s shaping those numbers, Olson said, adding tribal communities feel extremely protective of their children.

Olson said the data isn’t meant to be hurtful and it’s being shared not to make anyone feel less, but as a way to embrace it and come around to make changes.

“If you are not at the table, you’re probably on the menu,” said Olson, quoting a saying used with frequency in political circles. “That holds so true to me today.”

“Being at the table is really important, and fostering and engaging in those true relationships is what’s going to bring the communities to actually feel like this is something that’s not for them or about them but is with them,” Olson said.

Dane Smith, president of Growth and Justice, said a model that’s been successful and being duplicated now in Minnesota is called Strive Together. It’s being used in Itasca County, St. Cloud and the Twin Cities. It brings community sectors together with a plan that has specific measurements with real charted progress. It’s key to start in early education, Smith said.

“We really think that this Strive model is the best thing going,” Smith said. “In some respects it may be easier for this kind of ‘all-in’ community work to happen in Brainerd, Minn., areas because everybody already knows each other and there is already a sense of cohesiveness and community. ...

“Progress is being made and we can see it, we just need to build on it.”

During a break as participants set up in groups to look at specific community data, Sam said the timing is right for this conversation and action.

“This is a conversation that needs to happen now,” Sam said. “We’re ready to do this hard work together.”

Sam said the hope is to generate funds, continue research and drive conversations forward to create race equity and excellence plans for the communities. The goal is to make sure all students are succeeding, Sam said.

“This is a community issue,” Sam said. “This is about all of us.”

RENEE RICHARDSON, senior reporter, may be reached at 855-5852 or Follow on Twitter at

Renee Richardson
Richardson is a Pacelli High School graduate from Austin, Minn., who earned an applied science degree from the University of Minnesota, Waseca, with an emphasis in horse management. She worked extensively in the resort industry. She received an associate’s degree from Central Lakes College, where she was editor of the Westbank Journal student newspaper, as well as a summer intern at the Dispatch. She graduated from St. Cloud State University summa cum laude with a bachelor’s degree in mass communications and interned at the St. Cloud Times covering business while attending SCSU. She's been with the Brainerd Dispatch since 1996.
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