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State Representative Carlos Mariani

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Posted: 2009-11-12 00:00:00
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Column/LTE

The Promise of a Powerful National Movement


Should a child’s future be determined before she takes her first step? Should her destiny by constrained by the poor neighborhood she was born into? Can government remake itself guided by what it takes to support her success?

To be an American is to believe that anyone can prosper, no matter how harsh his or her surroundings. But too often in America, where our children are born dictates whether they will be successful. An African American boy born in North Minneapolis faces horrible odds of completing a higher education degree, and similar awful odds exist throughout our state.

With this in mind, I attended a national conference sponsored by the Harlem’s Children Zone (HCZ) to learn how their “place based" approach to empowering families produces high quality outcomes from high-crime, low-income communities. Instead of working to “beat the odds”, HCZ works to “change the odds” by changing schools and changing the way social supports tie into academic achievement.

As a result, HCZ is moving students from within this “zone” in Harlem to college in unprecedented numbers. They do this by providing a network of integrated services within tough neighborhoods that strengthen families, instead of moving families out of dysfunctional environs to access “better schools”. They run schools that belong to the community, and not to the adults who operate them. These schools, partnering with social programs, do whatever it takes for students to succeed while challenging them to claim their education.

President Obama requested $10 million in the Elementary and Secondary Education budget to fund 20 “Promise Neighborhoods” planning grants to develop models like the HCZ. Minnesota has several communities well positioned to pursue this opportunity, including the Neighborhood Achievement Zone from North Minneapolis, the Brooklyn Center school district, the St Paul Achievement Plus schools, the White Earth Reservation and others.

This initiative is meant to be the beginning of a powerful national movement that redefines how we develop a 21st century productive citizenry. Because we are both a diverse nation and one in economic stress, it ties the elimination of race and income based education inequalities to the rebuilding of our economy. This “from the ground up” approach seeks to build a new economy based on regular people and their skills, not on financiers on Wall Street.

But the initiative also reflects a “re-tooling” of government. The first step calls for breaking the “silos” within which we provide supports to families. A powerful example is the new U.S. Housing and Urban Development “Choice Neighborhoods” grant program that will fund local public housing agencies that link with school reform and early childhood programs.

We have arrived at a major crossroads in our nation’s history. Our persistent failure to educate students of color and poor kids leaves us unable to build a strong society.

The good news is that if we build a better education system, our children will not let us down. HCZ’s outcomes powerfully show us that. Children do not fail en masse. Only adults fail en masse. Minnesota’s failure rates, with some of the largest gaps in educational outcomes in the nation, cry out for adults to redesign our education system. HCZ’s work and solid research tells us to do so by creating schools and communities that integrate their academic, physical, emotional, and social development needs.

The Promise Neighborhoods initiative us a wonderful opportunity to learn how to do that.

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