Reading, writing, resilience? A new way to shrink the achievement gap

Students on the move
Students moved through the stairwell at John F. Kennedy Senior High School in Bloomington, Sept. 1, 2015.
Caroline Yang for MPR News file

Grit. Resilience. Persistence.

Schoolchildren are used to being assessed on their reading and math skills. But there's a growing movement to also study their character.

A coalition of civic and education leaders said Thursday that measuring and nurturing social and emotional skills will also help Minnesota solve one of the worst achievement gaps in the nation between white kids and students of color.

Michael Rodriguez, one of the state's leading researchers on educational disparities, was the first in his family to go to college.

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A St. Paul native and Mexican-American, he's from a blue-collar family on the city's lower east side.

"Nobody in the family had gone to college," he said. "I'm the first in five generations of Minnesotans to go to college."

But growing up, Rodriguez was surrounded by caring youth workers at community hubs around the neighborhood.

At a gathering of supporters for the Generation Next coalition Thursday, he recalled memories of fishing trips, visits to the Science Museum of Minnesota, and yes, even singing "Kumbaya" around a campfire.

"They got me, through body, mind and spirit," he said. "And I know if it weren't for that loosely organized network throughout the neighborhood, I would not be here today and be able to share with you this work."

Rodriguez credits those college-educated youth workers for showing him that kids from the east side — kids just like him — could aspire to academics after high school. He said they gave him what researchers call a "positive identity." Today he's a professor at the University of Minnesota, specializing in educational measurement.

Rodriguez said his early research suggests that students in Minnesota across all races and cultures possess important social and emotional skills, but "as students move from elementary school and into middle and high school, there are drops in their perceptions of things like positive identity."

In fact, positive identity among African-American boys takes a nosedive in eighth grade, says former Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak. He's the executive director of Generation Next. That piece of data is a troubling sign, Rybak said.

"It tells the story of a boy who wants to learn and may not believe in himself," he said. "Shame on us as adults for not stepping in and using the tools we have to tell that young person what they need to know to make sure they have that confidence."

Generation Next enlists civic and business leaders, as well as educators, to close the academic achievement gap in Minneapolis and St. Paul. It's not easy work, especially in light of grim graduation statistics cited Thursday by Eric Moore, the head of research and evaluation for Minneapolis Public Schools.

"We graduate 59 percent of students. But half of our African-American students and our Latino students will not graduate in four years," Moore said. "Worse than that, one in three of our American Indian students graduate in four years."

Moore said ninth-grade course failure and attendance are the biggest predictors for who will drop out.

And so, he said, dropout prevention shouldn't be rocket science: Find kids who are failing their classes and match them with the support they need.

"We know we can do better," he said. "We've had some very honest conversations about the fact that we have not provided the data in a way that practioners can use to address the outcomes we're talking about."

Rybak agreed.

"If your car flashes a light telling you you're out of gas before you run out gas, why don't we do that for kids?" he said. "Why don't we build in these systems that show when a child flunks an English class in ninth grade or even eighth grade, we intervene so we don't wait until they flunk that class and don't figure that out until they're about to graduate without the credits they need?"

Generation Next leaders say interventions must start early. The group announced Thursday $4 million in grants from the Bush Foundation and Greater Twin Cities United Way. The money will go toward improving the quality of childcare and expanding health and developmental screenings for 3-year-olds.