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Northside Achievement Zone: Ain’t No Stoppin’ Us Now.



The Foundation has been supporting the Northside Achievement Zone (NAZ) from its beginnings in 2009. We have invited Sondra Samuels to share her perspective on the progress made in those 5 years.

When Superintendent Bernadeia Johnson called to tell me she was resigning due to family demands, I felt numb. Less than a week before she had generously paid a surprise visit to my team during our staff meeting. Everyone felt honored.

She thanked them for their commitment to the children of the Northside as exemplified by our outstanding results. She said she knew that schools couldn’t do it alone—they needed accountable community partners, like Northside Achievement Zone (NAZ), to achieve the greatness children deserved. She believed that together we were poised to do amazing things. We believed it too, and now many—like my staff—are asking, “Now what?”

Personally, I will miss the Superintendent. None can question her unwavering commitment to the success of Minneapolis Public School (MPS) students—as evidenced by the strong initiatives she has been trying to put in place in a recalcitrant district whose failure she inherited and was unable to reverse.

In response to her departure and the stubborn educational and societal challenges we have all inherited, NAZ will stay the course we have been charting for the last several years with parents, community partners, other non-district schools, and of course, MPS. Why? Because what we are doing together is showing signs of great promise. The data tells us that our efforts are working to stem the tide of academic and community-wide failure—one student and one family at a time. I believe that what we are doing will succeed where other initiatives have failed. Here’s why:

  • Place-based approach: NAZ is ground zero for the greatest disparities in our city and arguably our state. Designated a “Racially Concentrated Area of Poverty” by the Met Council, it is clear that the future economic viability of our city and region will be dependent on growing the income base and developing an educated workforce in communities like ours. Our focus is on a 255-block area of North Minneapolis and the population of Northside students in nine partner schools. We have committed to working on the ground to reverse the isolation of Northside for everyone’s well-being.
  • Parents as Leaders: Currently over 650 parents & 1,600 students are enrolled inNAZ. In 2015 we will have 1,000 parents and 2,500 students poised to transform the culture of theNorthside. ForNAZ, family engagement is not something we do, it is who we are. Our collaboration is being led by the very parents we partner with. Our parents are all moving through different levels of engagement—from those who are newer and less engaged, to those who are engaged and whose children are starting to excel, to those who are providing leadership in their homes, on their blocks, in their schools, and in the community. Parent engagement and leadership is accelerated throughNAZ Family Academy parenting education programming, which supports parents in achieving their goal of being stronger parents in every aspect.

Results: Since scaling up we have hired 13 parents to work full-time on our staff—with 9 of them as NAZ Connectors. We have a Parent Advisory Board, which advises our board of directors, staff, and partners in all aspects of our work. Data shows that students who have at least one parent who graduated from NAZ Family Academy are doing better academically.  NAZ-Family Academy-Ready for K

  • High expectation. High Supports: Extremely ambitious expectations are set for everyone involved in NAZ. Our accountability is rigorous but so are our supports. Every parent receives one-on-one support and inspiration from a family coach or NAZ Connector. Connectors stay partnered with families no matter where they go in our opportunity network. NAZ scholars receive one-on-one coaching by a NAZ Academic Navigator, who, along with many of our Connectors, are located in our partner schools to ensure scholars excel.

   Results: Reading proficiency among NAZ-enrolled 3rd graders increased at a greater rate than their peers during the   2013-14 school year.NAZ-Third Grade Reading Graphic with text

  • NAZ is simple: Together we can do more. NAZ is a collective-impact movement. We are a multi-sector and cross-agency collaborative committed to one goal: ending multi-generational poverty using education as a lever. Our theory of change is that by aligning our focus, resources, and time, and employing an accountability structure across our whole-family-support and education-based organizations, we can provide full wrap-around support for the families and children who need it most, changing the trajectory of an entire community. Today we are doing just that. For over 5 years over 30 organizations and 9 schools have been working together and, more than that, learning together what works and what doesn’t in moving forward with the same families and children. Families and students are achieving as never before. In fact many are telling us that they feel that they now have a team on their side. This has never happened in such a disciplined way on the Northside!

Results:  Longer enrollment in NAZ is associated with higher academic proficiency on the Minnesota Comprehensive Assessment for children in grades 3-5 for the 2013-14 school year.NAZ-MCA Scores Graphic with text

  • Real Accountability– Real Results: Ours is a disciplined, evidence-based approach to getting measurable outcomes for children and families—not  programs and organizations. We are tracking the academic progress of each child and making real-time changes where necessary. We recently began a Zone-wide accountability process called “ResultsNAZ”, where partner organizations and NAZ staff, along with parents, board members and other stakeholders analyze performance data and make recommendations for improvement.

Results: NAZ is on track to hit our Kindergarten-readiness benchmark. NAZ-Kindergarten Readiness Graphic with text

Though I’m saddened by the Superintendent’s departure I’m still filled with hope. We have built a great partnership with the district and the Interim Superintendent, Michael Goar. I believe he will dedicate himself to ensuring that her bold initiatives are realized. All NAZ partners, including our parents, will continue to do what has never been done before through a collective-impact movement. Together we will ‘get better at getting better,’ and continue to align our efforts to build upon the breakthrough results we are achieving. In the words of my favorite song, “ain’t no stoppin’ us now!”

Sondra Samuels is President & CEO of NAZ where she provides top-level leadership, vision, and oversight of the overall NAZ effort. She is leading a revolutionary culture shift in North Minneapolis, (her home of 18-years), focused on ending multigenerational poverty through education.

Phillips Family Foundation

Author Phillips Family Foundation

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