thank you," she said. "We need the kind of work you're doing to keep
our democracy going," she said.
Samuels said she does have some cynicism
about the Civic Caucus report. "The idea in the report of studying
education some more made me fatigued just thinking about it," she
said. "Those of us who are in the trenches know what the problem is.
What's lacking is the will to address it."
"If we want to get at the opportunity gap
in education, we have to have great teachers," she said. "Any
business that wants to turn itself around gets the best CEO. We have
to start passing policies that ensure the children who need it most
will get the best educators. That is not what happens."
"Minnesota's schools of education haven't
been producing as many high-quality teachers as we would hope," she
said. "Because if they were, we wouldn't have the results we're
And she noted that although most states
have reciprocity for teachers, Minnesota does not. Reciprocity
allows teachers licensed in other states to teach when they move to
a new state. But when teachers from other states come to Minnesota,
they have to go back to school and get another degree from one of
our schools of education before they can teach, even if they were
teachers of the year in their own districts. And that has happened,
"But I also have hopefulness for what the
Civic Caucus is doing," she said. "What the Civic Caucus is talking
about doing gets us all on the same page. We have lost our public
centers where these kinds of dialogues and richness take place. How
do those of us who care get in the know? I have to keep talking
about the achievement gap and must patiently explain it to people
who don't understand. What you're talking about is absolutely
needed. We have to do that, because we've lost our spaces where we
convene and talk about the issues of our day and the policies."
"What you're doing is needed and the
issues you highlighted in the report are the right issues," Samuels
NAZ grew out of the PEACE Foundation.
Samuels said she and her husband, Don Samuels, a Minneapolis School
Board member and former Minneapolis City Council member, moved 20
years ago to become part of the North Minneapolis community. They
saw that North Minneapolis had, within a decade, changed
dramatically, with Jewish and other white flight and middle-class
African American flight.
In 2003, Don Samuels and NAZ's current
COO, Michelle Martin, started the PEACE (Public Engagement and
Community Empowerment) Foundation, a grassroots movement in North
Minneapolis and the broader community addressing the policies and
social conditions causing the violence in North Minneapolis. The
PEACE Foundation built a coalition of people within and outside of
Over the years, the violence was cyclical,
Sondra Samuels said. It would go down and then spike back up the
next year. "We knew what we were doing was not a permanent
solution," she said. They heard about the Harlem Children's Zone in
2008, after the McKnight Foundation took a group of people to New
York City to see the program. McKnight then convened about 50 of its
nonprofit grantees in North Minneapolis to hear from the group that
had traveled to Harlem. Inspired by the information shared about
Harlem's successful place-based strategy to end multigenerational
poverty, using education as a lever, the nonprofit leaders decided
to execute a similar strategy in North Minneapolis, NAZ.
Following its $27 million five-year grant
from the U.S. Department of Education in 2011, Samuels said NAZ's
budget has grown from $1 million to $11 million. It now has 75
employees, half of whom are from the Northside. Many are co-located
at key partner locations. The program uses the levers of whole
family support and education to provide "an ecosystem of support."
NAZ has an early-childhood pipeline of
mostly four-star-rated centers, along with eight K-12 partner
- One parochial school: Ascension Catholic School;
- Four Minneapolis public district schools: Elizabeth Hall
International Elementary School, Nellie Stone Johnson Elementary
School, North Senior Academy and Patrick Henry High School;
- One Minneapolis public schools contract alternative school:
PYC (Plymouth Christian Youth Center) Arts & Technology High
- Two public chartered schools: The Mastery School and KIPP
North Star Academy.
For total family support, NAZ collaborates
with housing, career and health partners. Samuels said there are
29 family achievement coaches hired from the community, some of them
parents who were in the NAZ pipeline. They're located in the partner
schools and early learning centers, as well as at-large, for
families whose children don't attend one of the NAZ partner schools.
Nearly all of the 1,000 families currently
participating in NAZ (98 percent) are people of color, with more
than three-quarters (79 percent) of them African American.
Forty-three percent of the families have incomes below $10,000, with
another 30 percent at incomes between $10,000 and $20,000. Most
families are headed by single women.
NAZ parents complete family achievement
plans. Each family has a team surrounding it, such as partners who
provide after-school programming, housing assistance, career
programs or behavioral health. "With a shared data system and
co-located staff, people not having to go from nonprofit to
nonprofit, telling their story over and over again, cuts down on the
time it takes to be poor," Samuels said. NAZ offers parenting
education classes, which she called a "significant part" of why the
program sees improved outcomes.
She said more NAZ students are ready for
kindergarten and they are doing better on the third- through
fifth-grade proficiency tests in reading and math.
The Achieving Through Stability fund has
undertaken a pilot program to stabilize families in housing.
Samuels said the program started two years ago with funding of
$800,000 from the Minnesota Housing Finance Agency (MHFA) and the
Minnesota Department of Education (MDE). The departments said the
research is clear that if children are housing unstable or homeless,
they're not going to show up at school ready to learn.
The pilot included NAZ, the Saint Paul
Promise Neighborhood and Clay County (where Moorhead is the county
seat). The pilot program funded housing organizations that help to
stabilize highly mobile families, Samuels said. It was just for
people with kids in public schools. Project for Pride in Living (PPL)
administered the program.
"We're finding that the families who are
in our pilot program and who were able to stabilize get wrap-around
services from NAZ or the Saint Paul Promise Neighborhood," she said.
"We're seeing some amazing success."
The NAZ federal grant ended in December
2016, so $5 million to $6 million goes away now each year.
"Corporations and foundations are stepping up now, because of our
results," Samuels said. "It's the combination of customized layered
supports for families that's making the difference."
Post-federal grant, she said, NAZ is
spending a lot of time trying to align its work with Hennepin County
and trying to increase funding from the Legislature. The
organization is undertaking a $35 million investment campaign for
corporations, philanthropic organizations and individuals. "We
really feel we have a model that can turn North Minneapolis from
being an underperforming asset to being a real powerhouse for the
region," she said. "We're looked at as a model of Promise
Neighborhoods in the nation."
NAZ is part of a statewide education
partnership coalition, which also includes St. Paul, Northfield,
Austin, Red Wing and St. Cloud. This statewide initiative went
to the Legislature, which invested $2.4 million each in NAZ and the
St. Paul Promise Neighborhood for the biennium. The state also
funded the Greater Minnesota initiatives, although Austin, the
newest member of the coalition, hasn't been funded yet.
NAZ is encouraged by its results, but has
a lot of work ahead of it. "We feel like we have a really
effective model," Samuels said. "Even if we go away tomorrow--and
funding for nonprofits is precarious now--I believe the way we are
organizing in the social sector in North Minneapolis, in terms of
cross-sector, cross-discipline sharing of data on results, joint
fundraising and working together on a shared goal, is what's
necessary if we're going to put a dent in the opportunity gaps that
are absolutely killing our state and our citizens."
Samuels prefers not to call the gap in
education the "achievement gap," but, instead, the "opportunity gap"
in education, in housing and in income.
Our problems are our opportunities.
Samuels made that comment and said, "Wherever we have a problem,
that's the greatest place for potential gain as a state, if we can
grab hold of it as an opportunity and see it with new eyes."
Perhaps the Civic Caucus should try to
unveil the open secrets of what's happening at publicly funded
Minneapolis Level 4 schools. Samuels made that comment in
response to an interviewer's question about whether kids at the
alternative schools are learning much of anything. She said people
at regular district schools think kids who are referred to
alternative schools "are not our problem anymore."
Alternative schools are for kids who have
behavior problems or can't keep up academically, Samuels said. NAZ
is working with an alternative school run by the Plymouth Christian
Youth Center. "We don't recruit children into that school," she
said. "You can't do that. Students are referred into the alternative
"I'm an education transformationist," she
said. "I used to think it was either black or white: either you were
educating kids or you weren't. Now I know there's a third way. The
alternative schools are given an almost undoable task. They are
asked to take a ninth grader who may be reading at a third-grade
level and graduate him or her four years later. They can come any
time of the year. It is absolutely a losing game from the time they
enter the door." PCYC, she said, is doing the unimaginable and using
the arts to get high schoolers on track to graduate, with some going
on to college.
"In the past, we have called alternative
schools 'soft prisons,' but they really aren't," Samuels said. "The
Level 4 schools are the soft prisons. Those are not the alternative
schools." In North Minneapolis, she said, the Level 4 schools are
Harrison Education Center, a high school, and River Bend Education
Center, a K-8 school.
"These are schools that are basically
prisons," Samuels said. "They are on lock-down. You cannot go and
come. When I visited Harrison, even the students' backpacks were
orange. Students looked like prisoners."
She said it's not true when the school
district says, "We have to accept all students." Samuels said, "No
they don't. They get rid of some of their kids."
People in education have been admiring the
problem for decades now. "I call it disparities gazing," Samuels
said. "One of the reasons people don't engage is that it's too
confusing. There is too much data around what the problem is and how
we fix it."
The student becomes the canary in the
mine. Samuels said that far too often, for students who are most
imperiled, much can be tracked back to their family and community
She said there are 63,000 people in North
Minneapolis, with 30 percent of them aged 18 or under. Most other
areas in the city have 20 percent aged 18 or under. She said many of
the families NAZ works with are in its original 250-block area, but
there are many other families scattered throughout North
An interviewer asked Samuels what NAZ has
done specifically to get buy-in from single-parent households for
education programs. He said in some schools he worked with around
the state, the problem was getting parents to go to parent-teacher
meetings and to get involved in their kids' education.
Samuels responded that schools have been
the same over the past 124 years. "We've done very little
innovation," she said. For schools, its customers are parents. For a
school to say that the problem is that their customer doesn't show
up for their events is so unlike what business would say. "They'd
never do it," she said. "They'd figure it out."
"We've discovered," she continued, "there
has been a lack of willingness to change the very foundation of how
we educate and engage the public." She said one thing that's been
working for NAZ is having parents as family achievement coaches
located at its partner schools and early childhood centers. Families
are coming to the schools to talk to those coaches about their
achievement plans, not just when they get a call from the school
that their child is doing poorly or is a problem at school. "Too
often the kids who are most imperiled have parents who had bad
outcomes in schools when they were little," she said. "They're
It's critical to get parents to schools
with family supports. Samuels made that remark and said that
schools must actually be inviting. She said NAZ is in some schools
where parents are subjects of arrest warrants, due to threatening
behavior. And, she admitted, there are some problems with
parent behavior. "But you have parents who themselves have gone
through adverse childhood experiences. They might lack some
emotional intelligence, as exemplified by hair-trigger tempers.
Understanding where they are coming from and setting the school up
to be inviting, yet firm and respectful, is the key."
Communication without change doesn't
matter. An interviewer made that comment and said it really
comes down to influence and change. His frustration with public
policy is that people have already decided what they believe; data
don't really matter.
He asked Samuels if she had any examples
that can be replicated where she has facilitated change, where she's
been able to move stakeholders from Point A to Point B in order to
Samuels said that recently a
ranked-choice-voting (RCV) expert talked about the importance of
that system, not as a panacea, but as a way of having a full
He also showed bell curves of where
Republicans and Democrats have fallen over the last 100 years. The
bell curves always came together in the past, Samuels said, and the
center part was where the moderate Republicans and Democrats were.
In that center part, she said, we could get things done, in terms of
policy. But the expert showed that today the bell curves don't
"When the bell curves don't touch," she
said, "no amount of research is going to make a difference. When
they're dug in, they're dug in. There are still moderates out there,
but some of them are in the closet, because it's not safe to go
against their party." But, she said, we can move those moderates who
are in the closet.
She said NAZ is always putting results out
there for people to see. "We're trying to reach the moderates with
our results," Samuels said. "And it's not just our results. I
love it when people are succeeding and addressing some of our
seemingly most intractable issues. I want to hold it up and know
about it. And I'm trying to figure out how to hold up failure, in
terms of what we've learned from it and how we've changed. In
innovation, you always have failure. If you don't fail, you're not
She noted that three of NAZ's eight
partner schools are showing statistically significant differences in
student achievement between NAZ-enrolled scholars and non-NAZ
students. "We can tell you what we're learning and what doesn't
work," she said.
What could the Civic Caucus do to
encourage open and honest dialogue on important issues? An
interviewer raised that question and asked how the Civic Caucus
might be of value in promoting and displaying open, honest and real
debate on issues like education. "What could we offer more publicly
to enhance this conversation?" he asked.
Samuels responded that when there is a
proposal under consideration, she'd like to hear the pros and cons
on the issue. "That's what people want to know," she said. She said
people attend debates, which create a space where people can talk
about the pros and the cons. Sometimes she's found herself jumping
to a policy position without hearing the cons on the policy.
Samuels said often people don't listen in
a conversation; instead, they reload to come up with their next
point. She suggested that the Civic Caucus try to uplift the art of
listening in order for people to understand each other. "We're more
polarized than we've ever been in our lifetime," she said. "We need
a group to come down the middle. The Civic Caucus could do that.
Somebody has to play that role. Why not you?"