Groups moving forward with program to help north Mpls. families succeed

Visiting families
Gwen Hollins, right, chats with Samantha McNeal, 28, and her 2-year-old daughter J'Nya, at their Minneapolis, Minn. home Thursday, Feb. 3, 2011. Hollins works with the Northside Achievement Zone, which collaborates with schools and service providers to help families succeed and build a better future.
MPR Photo/Jeffrey Thompson

Despite not winning a federal grant, a group of Minneapolis community leaders are moving ahead anyway with plans for a Northside Achievement Zone they hope will help north Minneapolis children make it to college and succeed in life.

Both St. Paul and Minneapolis applied for Promise Neighborhood grants last year. St. Paul won a $500,000 planning grant, but Minneapolis did not.

President Obama's budget includes $150 million for the Promise Neighborhoods initiative -- which aims to provide "cradle to career" support services for distressed families and communities.

The Northside Achievement Zone was inspired by the Harlem Children's Zone in New York, which has been touted as a success at helping low-income kids excel in school.

The Minneapolis effort hopes to replicate that success in a geographic area roughly bounded by Interstate 94 to the east, Penn Avenue to the west, 35th Avenue North and West Broadway.

Outreach director Andre Dukes said the area was chosen for its high concentration of poverty, crime and other problems.

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"Education has not been a priority for a lot of these families, and so we have to develop that mindset of achievement not only in the students but also in the parents," Dukes said.

The project aims to do that by collaborating with schools and service providers. Led by CEO Sondra Samuels, wife of city council member Don Samuels, the project uses a kind of house-to-house model, where people get involved and get their friends and neighbors to join, too.

The effort depends on organizers like 44-year-old Gwen Hollins. She spends her days knocking on doors and working the phones to find out what families need to be stable so they can begin to think bigger, and start to envision a better future.

"We want to get them thinking college, we want to get them ready for college, we want their mind set that this is no longer an option," Hollins said, "this is what I must do."

The plan seems to be working for Samantha McNeal. McNeal, 28, and her children recently completed a zone pre-K program. The soft-spoken mother of four said when she joined the Northside Achievement Zone, she was skeptical, but after working with Hollins for several months, her outlook has changed radically.

McNeal said she's now excited about things that once seemed impossible -- she is going back to college and plans to open her own beauty salon.

"I'm trying to go as high as I can go," McNeal said. "My goal is to build a good future for my kids, and I just want to do as much as I can."

North Minneapolis isn't the only community trying this model. The Promise Neighborhoods initiative in 21 communities across the country is a similar concept, but some critics have questioned whether that approach is effective.

Russ Whitehurst, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and director of the Brown Center on Education Policy found little evidence that expensive support services make much difference in how kids perform in school. His study compared test results at schools run by the Harlem Children Zone to those of kids in nearby charter schools.

"We know there are correlations between neighborhood factors and family factors and performance in school," Whitehurst said. "We know for example that violence in the home has a negative effect on student achievement, or divorce has a negative effect on student achievement.

Whitehurst said it makes intuitive sense that if investment was made in a program to reduce violence, then maybe that would have an effect on student achievement.

"It just turns out, so far, not to work like that," he said.

Whitehurst said more research is needed before the government spends taxpayer money to replicate the Harlem Children's Zone nationwide.

The Northside Achievement Zone is still in the pilot phase. Officials say so far they have about 60 organizations and about half of the targeted 200 families on board.