Mayor Hodges Youth Council: The new hires

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Minnesota’s achievement gap is consistently one of the worst in the country.  While policy makers have attempted to close the gap, standardized test scores show that little to nothing has changed. According to the Minnesota Comprehensive Assessment (MCAs) tests taken in 2014, white students are outperforming students of color in every subject by an average of 20 points.  Although standardized test scores do not measure the full potential of a student, they are currently one of the most important factors in determining where and if a student will attend college.

In July, Mayor Betsy Hodges of Minneapolis announced that she has hired two new advisors to respond to the inequities in the childhood development and education: Angela Watts, whose position is an existing one, will oversee programs aimed at early childhood development; and Phillipe Cunningham, whose position is brand new, will serve as the senior policy aide overseeing initiatives for youth ages 5-24 such as My Brother’s Keeper. The Mayor’s goal in hiring the new advisors is to work toward closing Minneapolis’ achievement gap.

For the past two decades, Minneapolis public schools have been struggling to retain students in addition to the startling numbers with regard to student achievement across racial and class lines.The school district has enough space for 50,000 students, yet over the past decade student enrollment has taken a drastic dip. According to the National Center of Education Statistics, between 2001 and 2014, enrollment fell by 10,400. Parents are pulling their children out of Minneapolis public schools and instead opting for private, charter or suburban schools.

In an email correspondence with Alexandra Fetissoff, Communications Director for Mayor Hodges, regarding the two new hires and their particular tasks, Fetissoff said, “Angela’s first focus is the implementation of the Cradle to K program. Phillipe is focusing on outreach and alignment of existing resources and capital on behalf of the most vulnerable youth in the City—both within the internal City enterprise and with external communities. Phillipe is acting as a connector bringing together all of the pieces and players in the City.”

When asked about expected outcomes, Fetissoff stated that with the new advisors and new ideas and concepts in place, results will be seen city-wide.  She added, “The public is already starting to see the benefits of these alignments and arrangements.”

One of the many benefits of having an improved quality of life is academic achievement, but the numbers don’t add up. So, what are the measures the Mayor’s office uses to determine where quality of life has improved for youth? Are youth voices involved and being heard in policies and ideas directly affecting their lives? These were some of the questions asked and there were no responses.

Fetissoff followed up on the email with a phone call to say that Mayor Hodges has only been in office for 18 months and new advisors are not expected to have all the answers.

While the Mayor and her staff work on their initiatives to address childhood development and the achievement gap, community activists and leaders are approaching the situation from community-based, youth-driven programming.

One of them is Kyle Tran Myhre, Communications Director of TruArtSpeaks, a local organization committed to youth voices, believes, “The people who know the most about what young people need are young people themselves. They need to be ‘at the table,’ so to speak, and as adults, we need to do more than pay lip service to their perspectives and ideas.” Tran Myhre, known professionally as Guante, an educator and activist has spent years working with youth with the goal of empowering underprivileged children to speak up and speak loud, “Minneapolis is great, but that ‘greatness’ is too often only accessible to some of us. Communities of color, indigenous communities, low-income communities, and immigrant communities aren’t always included in the conversation. When it comes to youth, I think it becomes important to focus on those communities in a way that is about community leadership and solidarity as opposed to top-down reform.”

While the road ahead is not clear, the city of Minneapolis has its work cut out for them.