Achievement gap is "race gap," legislators are told

Young testimony
Students involved in Lifeline Youth Off Street Ministry told lawmakers at a hearing in north Minneapolis about their concerns, from teen pregnancy to gang violence.
MPR Photo/Laura McCallum

This is the first time in recent memory that a legislative committee has traveled to north Minneapolis, an area struggling with crime and poverty, and home to many African-American and immigrant families. Several students talked about their concerns - from violence to school lunches.

A parade of Minneapolis teachers urged legislators to visit their classrooms before making any decisions on education funding. And many of the people who testified told lawmakers if they want to close the academic gap between low-income students and children with more economic advantage, they should work to prevent it by spending money on early childhood education for low-income children.

Phyllis Sloan, an early childhood educator, says north Minneapolis has many single-parent families who have to work full-time, and need to put their children in quality care. She says early childhood education is tied to whether a family has a decent job and stable housing.

"If one of them goes, all of them go," said Sloan. "And for our families throughout this community, it's not a downward spiral, as is often talked about, it's a plummet; an immediate plummet, and it's devastating, and particularly to the children."

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A call for plain talk
Eric Pone, co-chair of the Minneapolis Public Schools District Parents Advisory Committee, told legislators to talk to them in plain English, so that parents can understand state education policy.
MPR Photo/Laura McCallum

Another advocate of early childhood education, Rico Alexander, told lawmakers if they want to help low-income children, they should increase funding for Head Start. Alexander is with Parents in Community Action, an agency that operates Head Start programs in Hennepin County.

He said the federal program serves the poorest children, those living below the poverty limit, which is $20,000 a year for a family of four.

"Many people in this room would support legislation that you provide so long as it serves the poorest kids first," Alexander said. "I think we all can agree on that. And if we really want to make an impact on education, on health, and on economic disparities, let's fully fund Head Start."

Legislators also heard concerns about children's mental health, and how that can affect their ability to learn. A child psychiatrist told lawmakers that some students have been misdiagnosed as having a mental health disorder, when they were simply acting in a way that's appropriate for their culture.

Dr. Will Dikel testified that other students have undiagnosed depression or mood disorders that impede their ability to learn, yet those students may not have access to mental health services.

Some lawmakers say cultural differences are also a factor in high truancy rates in Minneapolis. Rep. Willie Dominguez, who represents north Minneapolis, says some students of color have language barriers, and may not feel comfortable coming to school.

"We don't have teachers that look like you; you kind of frown away from that, because they don't understand your background, where you're coming from, and you see that a lot in the Minneapolis public schools," he said

One college professor called it the "race gap," noting that more than 70 percent of Minneapolis students are students of color, yet the teaching staff in Minneapolis is not nearly as diverse.

Lawmakers on the two House committees say they value the testimony they heard in north Minneapolis, and say it will help shape the education decisions they make this session.