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'Under Construction': Northside Achievement Zone

August 25, 2014

Under-construction-logoUnder Construction is a multimedia online exhibit showcasing some of the best and brightest organizations working with males of color. The UC team of filmmakers, photographers, writers, and nonprofit experts worked directly with each of these organizations for several weeks. The collaborations yielded comprehensive portraits of the services men of color receive. Each profile features a short video, a photography exhibit, a visual program model, and a narrative essay detailing the efforts of these organizations.

Under Construction is a project of Frontline Solutions and was made possible through the support of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. For more profiles, click here.

"What do you want to be when you grow up?"

It's the classic question, probably the best way for an adult to get inside the mind of a child, who must imagine life ten, fifteen, twenty years from now.

Common sense dictates that we should outwardly deem every child's answer to that question as  airtight. Whatever you want, you can have. We'll embrace the different versions of those high-achieving future selves — whether it involves saving patients' lives, discovering a new gene, leading a Fortune 500 company. Privately, however, we may imagine less rosy futures, aware of certain realities that often impede the path to success, including income and wealth, geography, race, gender, and educational quality.

For a tightly knit group of residents in North Minneapolis, Minnesota, however, "whatever you want, you can have" is the gospel truth. For every child, no exceptions.

They have decided to aim very high for their children and to partner with mentors, teachers, tutors, and other professionals to provide the supports needed for their children to be ready for college and beyond. The mobilizing force behind this group is the Northside Achievement Zone (NAZ), a Promise Neighborhood collaborative that seeks to end intergenerational poverty in North Minneapolis through education.

Delajuante Moore, Josh Mendez, and Jason Spellman are among the more than 1,600 youth — many low income and youth of color — living in North Minneapolis that, with their families, are enrolled in NAZ. All three young men have thought about what they want to be when they grow up. Delajuante, a rising eighth-grader and recent graduate of Ascension Catholic School (a NAZ partner school), wants to be a lawyer. His classmate Josh is looking at different options but is really interested in being a video game director. Jason, a rising sixth-grader at KIPP Stand Academy (another NAZ partner), wants to be a doctor.

UC_Jason_SpellmanThrough the messaging of NAZ and its partners, the young men are reminded constantly that their plans rest on getting a college degree. At KIPP, a college-preparatory charter school, Jason and his classmates are proud members of the "Class of 2024," the year they expect to graduate from a four-year university. With Josh and Delajuante, Jason participates in an afterschool program called 21st Century Academy that is designed explicitly to help middle-school-age students prepare for college and careers.

Nine local schools also partner with NAZ, along with a total of twenty-seven nonprofit anchor organizations, including afterschool and expanded learning programs, housing agencies, and early childhood centers. Together, all these actors form a tight circle of support around Northside students and families. And while these resources may be available in a majority of low-income communities, the NAZ difference is the way in which it coordinates and aligns the various partners, and in how it champions a Northside "culture of achievement," with empowered families leading the way.

Planting a New Seed

NAZ began in 2003 as a North Minneapolis–based grassroots movement to stem violence in the community. At the time, Sondra Samuels, today NAZ's president and CEO, saw violence reduction as the only viable strategy for addressing the homicide crisis among young African-American men and women in the community. (The city's health department reports that between 2003 and 2006, 59 percent of youth victims of homicide in Minneapolis were African American.) One of her allies, Pastor Andre Dukes, was also working hard on the anti-violence agenda. Dukes remembers hoping never again to have the "unfortunate privilege" of officiating at a slain teenager's funeral, or of having to console that boy's mother.

Over the course of campaigns and vigils, Northside enjoyed moments of relative peace — followed by more spikes of violence. Eventually, Samuels and her colleagues began seeing the violence as a symptom of a greater problem involving poor educational outcomes. About five years ago, they heard about other urban communities around the country that were effecting change through education. After identifying the Harlem Children's Zone as a beacon of community transformation, about fifty North Minneapolis leaders decided to pay HCZ and its leader, Geoffrey Canada, a visit. There, they learned the nuts and bolts of a comprehensive support system and how it could help supposedly "unteachable" children reach college.

UC_Sondra_SamuelsThe seed was planted, and a a plan to apply for a federally funded Promise Neighborhood program in Northside soon began to form. But first, leaders of the effort wanted to test their vision with neighbors through a door-knocking campaign. "We asked two simple questions," says Samuels. " 'Would you like your child to go to college?' And, 'Could you use someone having your back to make that happen?' " Both questions generated a definitive "yes."

Over the course of convening and planning, the organizers settled on a 13-by-18-block area for the achievement zone. In those 255 square city blocks live roughly 15,000 residents, many of whom are all too familiar with multi-generational violence and poverty. "Great hearts but often empty hands" is how Reverend Alika Galloway, a co-director of 21st Century Academy, describes her neighbors. Indeed, just 43 percent of African-American youth graduate on time from Minneapolis Public Schools.

In December 2011, NAZ received a $28 million Promise Neighborhood implementation grant from the U.S. Department of Education. One exciting new development that the grant helped fund was NAZ Connect, an online family achievement plan tool and data-keeping system available to all the zone's partners. For low-income families, NAZ Connect is the innovation that eliminates the endless hours of paper work and "seat time" that is part of the drill at most social service agencies. For NAZ staff, it's the tool for continuously evaluating progress toward outcomes and making necessary adjustments along the way.

Organizing the Village

In spite of these high-tech tools and the national profile that comes with being a Promise Neighborhood, NAZ maintains an organic, homegrown feel. Staff members have personal histories with Northside. NAZ manages programs without being programmatic. "At the center of our work is not programs and organizations; it's families and their aspirations," says Samuels.

UC_Broderick_WilliamsPerhaps the most fitting metaphor for NAZ is the village. For NAZ team members, the village provides the wisdom and the moral imperative to serve, especially for the leaders who grew up in North Minneapolis. Broderick Williams, a staff member at 21st Century Academy, believes his work is mandatory. "Any other culture, you see elders come back and teach their village," he says. "If I don't teach the ones who look just like me to grow up to be men, I'm setting up my generation for failure." Williams, 24, credits another 21st Century Academy staff member, Tyshawn Blackwell, 36, for mentoring him and helping to shape his own path.

The value of male mentorship isn't lost on any of the men at NAZ. For example, Alvin Abraham, the principal of KIPP Stand Academy, has built a rapport with Jason that will be essential over the course of Jason's journey toward a degree. "I can joke with [Jason] and have a friendly relationship with him," explains Abraham. "But at the same time, if I see if he's not meeting expectations, either academically or behaviorally, I can have a serious man-to-man sit-down...and he responds so well to that."

Another ingredient of NAZ success is specialized support. Abraham and KIPP's teachers benefit from the assistance of Academic Navigators who work on site at their school. These scholar-coaches, stationed in every NAZ anchor school, provide close personal attention, regularly meeting with kids, families, and teachers to provide consistent support and to keep students on track toward their academic goals.

Specialized support is also available for a NAZ student's family, should it need assistance with housing, health care, or job training. NAZ Navigators are available to provide personal support in each of six areas, while the NAZ Connectors match children and parents with the right supports and remain with a family until a student's high school graduation. All this support happens in partnership, with NAZ continually putting the onus on families to take the lead on their achievement plans.

The support in the area of early childhood exemplifies NAZ's confidence in families. The Family Academy's classes exist to empower parents as the "first and primary teachers of their children." "They are the best experts," says Andre Dukes, who directs the zone's Family Academy. "And we want to equip them with the skills and the knowledge to ensure that their children are ready for kindergarten and can stay at grade level." The Family Academy is yet another place where new parents, who receive baby onesies and toddler T-shirts with "Class of 2036" and "Future College Graduate" emblazoned on the front, learn about NAZ's long-haul commitment.

Coming Home

All these supports fold Northside families into one extended NAZ family, building more trust with each new friendship. But as vital as the out-of-school academic assistance that a 21st Century Academy provides is, the loving relationships that boost student self-confidence are just as important. "It"s just a great place to be," says Josh of the afterschool program. Delajuante feels the same way. "21st Century is like a family to me. It's like coming home to people I can trust and people I know have my back."

Ultimately, 21st Century Academy and other NAZ programs have to be like family. The risk is too great that they'll get edged out by the "competition": the other Northside "families" running the streets and fighting for the allegiance of young men. NAZ, says Samuels, is mindful of "the little boys whose dads are not there, who feel they are the men of their families protecting their moms and their sisters. We're saying, 'We know you need someone to have your back'."

Promising to "have someone's back" from birth until college is a serious commitment. The reality is that the scope of the NAZ commitment extends even further. "Villages aren't made in one day," says Williams. "Villages are first, second, third, fourth, fifth generation." This is the shared long view behind the "population-level change" that NAZ seeks.

Pastor Galloway loves to tell a story that hints at where future Northside generations are headed. Recently her young grandson, Jaden, became lost on a school bus after forgetting the location of his stop. Jaden knew to seek help from a familiar face on the bus, Delajuante Moore. The two then went back to Delajuante's home, where the eighth-grader gave Jaden cereal and began calling every number he could to reconnect the young boy with his family.

"So you have a black boy who was lost," says Galloway through tears. "But another little black boy said, 'I'll help you find a way'."

Brian Baughan

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