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What works with closing the achievement gap? Schools and parents can't do it alone

The leader of the Northside Achievement Zone says helping families navigate support is essential

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Sondra Samuels
Sondra Samuels, president and CEO of the Northside Achievement Zone, says helping families navigate support is essential to helping students succeed.
Laura Yuen | MPR News 2015 file

Minnesota is still struggling with the second widest racial education gap in the country, only behind Wisconsin in the latest data.

During this first week of school for many students, MPR News is talking to various experts about how to close the gap.

Sondra Samuels, president and CEO of the Northside Achievement Zone in Minneapolis, said her eight-year initiative has shown some key factors in helping low-income families improve their kids’ academic achievement. Among them, she said, is working with parents — whom she describes as “a child’s first teacher” — and providing family achievement coaches.

“Just having someone who's supporting families to navigate supports and actually working in a community to make sure those supports are coordinated and organized” can go a long way, Samuels said.

She said making change requires a layered approach that supports students and families in different ways and in different settings. Neither schools nor families can close the achievement gap by themselves, she said.

One of the common challenges is a "belief gap" for families who haven't experienced higher education.

“I'm talking about low-income community members that have been basically blocked out of key opportunities,” Samuels said.

Even if no one in that child’s family has gone to college, assume that child will attend. Make a plan and set a date for it, she said. In the Northside Achievement Zone’s parent-education classes, for example, families receive a baby T-shirt that says “College Graduate 2041” — the year a child born in 2019 will graduate from a four-year college.

Click on the audio player to hear the interview.