Hearing It First Hand

By August 12, 2016Foundation Blog

by Joel Luedtke, Senior Program Officer

Reports.  Articles.  Briefs.  White Papers.  These and their ilk accumulate in the email in-boxes and on the desks of Foundation staff.  When we find the time and courage to wade through these documents, they invariably provide important insights about the issues we seek to impact.  But you can only learn so much from words on paper.

Even the best-written, most cleverly constructed research report lacks the punch of this statement about public education, delivered to your face by a young person:

“Schools did nothing to help me navigate the world as a black woman”

Or this one:

“Some teachers don’t care, so why should I try?”

Or this:

“My high school said they would suspend us if we did a walk out in solidarity with Black Lives Matter.  Don’t they get that this is something that affects us?”

Here at Phillips, we’ve spent the last six months in strategic planning process rooted in empathy.  We’ve attempted to understand the experiences and ideas of North Minneapolis residents, and we’ve engaged Northsiders in helping us design possible answers to their most pressing concerns about education and financial resilience.

In our conversations and design work with students, teachers and parents, three broad “solutions spaces” have emerged.  (You can read about what we’ve learned about building financial power and resilience here.)  Each is built around the quotes, observations and insights gleaned from many hours of interviews, site visits and just hanging out in North Minneapolis.  The ideas themselves were created and refined by teams of people with significant direct experience in K-12 education on the Northside.

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Helping students design relevant learning experiences

The statements above present a harsh critique of school based on the lived experiences of students of color.  The antidote to stories of being disrespected, disengaged and disempowered is to give students more ability to shape their own learning experience.   This is the kernel of the idea that emerged from the Foundation’s design process.  We are excited to see growing momentum to redesign school to make it more relevant for learners.  Both the Bush Foundation and the Greater Twin Cities United Way are focusing on making education more relevant.  Our intention is to solicit concrete ideas from Northside educators about how this concept can take root in local schools and out-of-school spaces.

Elevating the voices and power or Northside Parents

During this learning journey, we met some inspiring Northside parents who are working hard to support their children’s success.  Here are some of their words:

“I make sure (school) staff know I care.  I get on the same page with staff”

“We need to show kids that school is important.  Education has to be a team effort.”

“When my son made the honor roll, he came back and thanked me.  He said ‘I couldn’t have done it without you’”

We also met with dedicated school staff who are also working hard to connect with families who have not been as engaged in their children’s education.

These experiences helped us zero in on the need for new and better strategies to build parent voice and power on the North Side.  Whether at the school, district or state level, organized and vocal parents have immense influence on the schools and systems that impact their children.  Based on this feedback, the Foundation will seek partners who have the credibility and vision to bring powerful Northside voices into all levels of education policy.

Supporting a deep pool of talented school leaders

When we asked educators what teachers need to do their best work, the answer that came back was “Great school leaders!”  Fortunately, the North Side has many dedicated and talented principals in its public, charters and private schools.  We will seek ideas about how to support these leaders, enable them to mentor emerging leaders, and support a strong talent pipeline that can continue to provide the excellent school leadership North Side families need and deserve.

Next Steps

To anyone excited to dig into any of these education “solution spaces”: Let’s talk!  The Foundation plans to release new funding and application guidelines soon.  We want this opportunity to be widely shared and welcome the chance to speak with any potential partners and applicants.

To everyone who participated in our design process: Thank You!  We hope this brief post faithfully captures the wisdom shared by more than 30 community members and education leaders over the past three months.  Your feedback is also welcome.

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