Working Together on the North Side
North Minneapolis got a heckuva gift just before the holidays. The Northside Achievement Zone (NAZ), a community-wide project aimed at “cradle-to-career” support for children, got word from the federal Department of Education that it would receive $28 million over the next five years to expand its services. This is a great example of collaborative efforts to close the achievement gap by directly addressing the realities of poverty for many students.
The NAZ is one of many aspiring “Promise Neighborhoods” across the country. Modeled to some degree on the Harlem Children's Zone, Promise Neighborhoods coordinate the work of poverty relief services, community organizations, and schools with the goal of building “a culture of achievement” (PDF) for children. As just one example of its work, the NAZ deploys family coaches—drawn from the north side community—to work one-on-one with children's families starting at a very early age.
Initiatives like the NAZ have promise because they are built from the ground up in the communities they serve and because they recognize that many factors outside the K-12 classroom impact children's capacity for academic success.
Some people see these factors and throw their hands up, saying they represent insurmountable obstacles. Others insist that the solution should come solely from making the school system work better. The NAZ approach, however, seeks to address these issues while simultaneously working to improve teaching and learning practices in the schools.
As one might imagine, this takes a lot of time, energy, and money. Until now, the NAZ has been getting by on $1 million a year; the Department of Education grant will more than quintuple that. This will let the NAZ grow from its 150 pilot families toward its five-year goal of 1,200 families, or 3,000 children.
Perhaps most notable—and hopeful—about the NAZ is the relative lack of acrimony and controversy surrounding it. This is not about coercing teachers or punishing schools. This is about doing the right thing with all who are interested in helping, and that's something progressives can and should celebrate.