N. Minneapolis social services startup awarded $28M grant

Jim Shelton
Assistant Deputy Education Secretary for the Office of Innovation and Improvement Jim Shelton announces the Northside Achievement Zone, a collaborative effort to boost educational achievement for kids in north Minneapolis, as a recipient of a $28 million grant, Monday, Dec. 19, 2011 at Elizabeth Hall International Elementary School in Minneapolis.
MPR Photo/Tim Nelson

A social services startup has been awarded a $28 million grant to help students and families.

Federal education officials announced Monday the award to the Northside Achievement Zone, a collaborative effort to boost educational achievement for thousands of kids in north Minneapolis.

The announcement from came from Federal Assistant Deputy Education Secretary Jim Shelton, who drew cheers from local officials and educators who gathered at Elizabeth Hall International Elementary School to hear the announcement.

"The Northside Achievement Zone has secured a $28 million implementation grant," Shelton said.

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The announcement is good news after a difficult year for the neighborhood. A tornado ripped through the neighborhood May 22. A flurry of shootings in the summer left three teenagers dead and wounded another four — the youngest was 12.

Many of those kids who will benefit live in the Jordan neighborhood, one of the state's poorest. The poverty rate is more than 30 percent in the surrounding area, according to Census data. Unemployment is about four-times the state average, and about half the students in the area reach reading benchmarks.

About three years ago, schools and social service agencies decided to pool their resources to fight those ills. They called the effort the Northside Achievement Zone and it covers about 250 blocks northwest of downtown Minneapolis. It's modeled after the groundbreaking Harlem Children's Zone in New York City.

, Sondra Samuels, Northside Achievement Zone
Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak and 5th Dist. Rep. Keith Ellison look on as Northside Achievement Zone founder Sondra Samuels speaks about a new $28 million federal education grant awarded to her program.
MPR Photo/Tim Nelson

"Basically, we have our families at the center, and their children and we told them, we have your back," said Sondra Samuels, CEO of the Northside Achievement Zone and wife of Minneapolis city council member Don Samuels. She helped found the effort.

"If you want to succeed, you want your child to succeed from the time you are pregnant all the way up until they graduate high school — we ain't leaving you," she said.

The grant funds the Northside Achievement Zone with about $5.5 million annually for five years. The money comes from the U.S. Department of Education's Promise Neighborhood program, a signature effort by the Obama administration. Four other programs across the country also received similar grants Monday.

"[That] means that we can scale up. We can take what we're doing with about 150 families and really bring it to scale throughout the zone," Samuels said. "We have about 2,000 families and about 5,500 children that make up the Northside Achievement Zone, and we want to get to as many families and kids as we possibly can."

People like Kenneth Scales are the foot soldiers in the effort. He's a connector in the program.

"A NAZ connector is like a family coach, that works closely with families to build a relationship, ensure that they're successful," Scales explains. "We kind of navigate the Northside Achievement Zone, of all of our programs to make sure our families get connected."

Connectors will try to solve all kinds of problems by putting participating families in touch with needed services, said Michelle Martin, a co-founder of the program. Students who need help with schoolwork, or a family who finds they have to move can get help from one of the organization's housing partners — connectors will see that the family gets that help.

"I think first and foremost, they're a coach, a friend, mentor, coach from their own community, who understands what that family might be going through and can kind of be arm-in-arm with them," Martin said.

She hopes the federal grant will fund 40 connectors to serve 1,200 families.

The grant comes in addition to the federal Race to the Top education funding announced last week — some of which will be also be going to North Minneapolis.