An ambitious effort to improve the academic performance of children in north Minneapolis is helping some students in the younger grades make gains, according to a recent assessment of the program.
Wilder Research has found that the longer children are enrolled in the Northside Achievement Zone, the greater their improvement.
The NAZ has four key measures to see if children in a 255-block area are on track for college: They need to be ready for kindergarten, read by third grade, be proficient in eighth-grade math and graduate from high school.
The program expects to reach its full capacity of 1,000 families and 2,500 children next year. As of mid-2014, 660 families and 1,640 are children are currently enrolled.
Forty-nine percent of NAZ's kindergartners were "kindergarten ready," compared to 35 percent of children who live in the area but aren't receiving the extra services of NAZ.
More than 100 children have scholarships to attend high-quality preschools through the program.
Naomi Hagen, program director for The Family Partnership, a preschool where NAZ children make up about a third of students, says NAZ children have more support.
"We had a family who was — actually the children hadn't been in school for a few days, which was concerning because they really are consistent about attending," Hagen said. "And the phone wasn't working."
Hagen called a NAZ connector, a person who works closely with the family, who then made a home visit and learned the mother was concerned about finding money for rent and groceries. She'd kept the children home because she'd run out of laundry detergent and didn't want to send them to school in dirty clothes.
"Send them to school," Hagen recalled telling her. "We'll put different clothes on them and wash the clothes. So, I mean things like that happen and it just, it hinders how they can learn because they're so worried about home that they can't focus on school."
NAZ has a team of Early Learning Navigators who help families understand the importance of early education, and address any developmental issues before kids reach kindergarten.
NAZ President and CEO Sondra Samuels says the higher test scores of kids in third and fifth grades who have been enrolled in the program longer show the investment is paying off.
"It suggests that we're onto something," she said.
But Samuels acknowledges the data also uncovered weak spots.
NAZ eighth-graders missed the mark, with just 17 percent of them demonstrating proficiency in math, only one point ahead of non-enrolled students. To address that, Samuels said NAZ plans to increase academic coaching and give middle-schoolers extra help after school and over the summer.
NAZ has two more years to build a track record before its federal funding runs out and it has to find other funding to continue. Samuels said families, and the program's 39 partner organizations, are showing they can move the needle in north Minneapolis.
"What we're doing has never been done before and we're doing it in a place that everyone in this region would agree is ground zero," Samuels said. "And so, as Dr. Phil would ask, 'How's that working for you, the strategies that you've tried?' And I think we'd all say they haven't worked. That the well-being of children and families on the northside have been egregious."