Northside Achievement Zone develops (without Geoffrey Canada)


There have been many programs, initiatives and promises over the years to improve opportunities for Minneapolis’ families and children, particularly on the Northside. Still, achievement and opportunity gaps persist. So now comes the latest of these initiatives: “NAZ”, the Northside Achievement Zone, which says it hopes to raise student achievement by duplicating some of the strategies of Geoffrey Canada’s high-profile Harlem Children’s Zone — but without the charismatic leadership of Canada or the multi-million dollar funding and new educational programming it has.

Michelle Martin, executive director of the Peace Foundation and co-chair of the steering committee said NAZ was attempting to replicate the promise and the strategies of the Harlem Children’s Zone, but that, “We are clearly not replicating the model.” NAZ will try to get existing programs to collaborate, working together more effectively and improving neighborhood outreach.

NAZ is a collaboration of Northside organizations and indivduals working together to support families and ultimately student success. They will seek out families through old-fashioned door knocking and connect those families with resources using new computer software. The plan is to let families take the lead in creating achievement plans for themselves and their children, and to then enter those plans into a database accessible to all partnering organizations.

You can add NAZ to the list of education and youth initiatives that includes early childhood programs such as 500 Under 5 and Way to Grow, the University Northside Partnership, Youth in Minneapolis Afterschool Programs (YMAP), Blueprint for Action: Preventing Youth Violence in Minneapolis, the Twelve Point Plan and other Minneapolis Public School plans to close the achievement gap.

Anne Long, executive director of the Plymouth Christian Youth Center,
has seen initiatives come and go for decades. She is on the NAZ steering committee and is optimistic about new-found cooperation.

“It is a much broader-based group of people,” she said. “It is not just educators. It is not just human services folks. It is not just youth organizations. It is not just Hennepin County Human Services. It includes neighborhood folks who are involved in housing. It involves small businesses.”

Long serves on a NAZ coordinating team for education, one of its focus areas. It includes representatives from public, private, charter and parochial schools, contract alternatives and groups like Teach for America. It’s a group of people who all say they are working hard for kids, but also people who “maybe don’t trust each other very much,” Long said. “Yet we are all in the same room. This is just beginning. We are committing to work together across all those boundaries.”


An accessible database

Community Collaboration Inc. of Rockford Ill. has developed the “achievement plan” software the Northside Achievement Zone (NAZ) plans to use.

President and CEO Steve Burchett said it allows government, social services agencies or churches to effectively work together, so clients don’t have to retell their story every time they go to a new place for help.

“They have a single common plan for a family or individual rather than operating in silos,” he said. You don’t have one agency saying, “I can help you but you need to go get your GED” and another saying, “I can help you but you need to stay home and take care of your kids.”

NAZ has a new twist. It will have the families write their own plan of action, not the social service agencies. Once families write their plan, the program allows them to choose how to share the information. They can share some, all or none of the information with different agencies.

Community Collaboration now works with 77 organizations, primarily in Rockford, Lake County, Ill. and the Twin Cities. It charges a one-time set-up fee and an annual fee to maintain and upgrade the system. Having a larger network creates an economy of scale, Burchett said.

By creating a common database, a community can begin to take a better look at which interventions are working and which are not, he said.


Creating achievement plans

In some ways, NAZ is taking a very different approach from the Harlem Children’s Zone. Canada raises millions of dollars for the Harlem Children’s Zone and runs the programs under one organizational umbrella. The Northside Achievement Zone is trying to knit together the work of dozens of independent community-based agencies and public programs to offer more seamless services to make sure everyone is pulling in the same direction.

That means collaboration—something always easier said than done.

Wesley Walker, executive director of the NorthWay Community Trust, and Michelle Martin co-chair the steering committee. (Here is a list of other members.) They say one key piece of NAZ is getting families to write their own achievement plan and then sharing those plans with organizations that could help.

This is why NAZ partners are in the process of getting a software program that allows families to create their own achievement plans on-line. The content of the achievement plan is still in design, but it will include such things as whether families or children want help with mentors, tutors or support in parent engagement at school. The plans will eventually expand to include support for parents, too. The families could designate as many NAZ agencies as they want to have access to their plan.

The approach could have multiple benefits, organizers say. NAZ organizations could improve outreach if they know what kind of help families want. If an organization knows a family has children under 5, they could let them know about Early Childhood and Family Education (ECFE) or other parenting programs. All organizations could focus on the same broad goals in the family’s plan and avoid working at cross purposes or giving duplicate services. The family itself would be more committed to the plan because it is family driven.

“We hope by the end of the year to have 100 families enrolled in NAZ Connect as a starting point,” Martin said.

This year, NAZ plans to hire 15 neighborhood outreach workers and use 10 volunteers to do family outreach throughout the 255-block NAZ area, which includes approximately 7,725 children (2000 census). It’s bounded by Penn Avenue North, I-94, 35th Avenue North and West Broadway Avenue.

Twin Cities RISE! will train the outreach workers, called NAZ Connectors. These volunteers and paid staff will encourage families to write the plans and help them do it if they need support. Staff at the individual nonprofits participate in NAZ also could help families write their achievement plans.

NAZ will contract with Community Collaboration Inc., which has developed the software. The program allows client information to be shared among agencies to increase effectiveness while protecting client privacy, the organization’s web site said.

Balancing big goals with realism

The long-term goals are ambitious, but the initial budget is small. The mission is to align resources and opportunities in the zone, “to meet the physical, emotional and spiritual needs of all children (birth to 18 years) to promote educational achievement and life success.”

This year, NAZ has $99,500 plus $129,500 in in-kind donations. Next year NAZ hopes to raise approximately $450,000 and increase the number of outreach workers. It eventually hopes to raise $1 million a year.

“Our intent is to start small and grow,” Walker said. “We don’t want to create this huge expectation that we will make drastic change right off the bat. The change will be gradual.”

Martin said the long-term goal is to get a critical mass of kids who are saying, “’Hey, I want to go to college. I want to create an achievement plan. I want to be successful.’ And those kids that take that first step are impacting other kids who live near them.”

Questions remain

The challenges ahead are numerous, ranging from the lack of a high-profile champion to long-term sustainability.

The Harlem Children’s Zone has Geoffrey Canada as a charismatic leader and key fundraiser. The NAZ doesn’t have such a public face. As Walker put it, “Funders will ask the question: ‘Who is the Geoffrey Canada who is doing this, and how can we be confident that it will deliver?’ … It is an interesting challenge.”

Further, there is the digital divide. Some Northside families either lack computers at home or might lack computer training. That could hinder the benefits of a web-based system. Martin said most of the families in NAZ’s initial work have some computer access, either through kids or coffee shops. The first strategy will be to identify partner agencies where families could go with their coaches to use computers.

Money will be a challenge, too. Even Canada’s star power hasn’t protected the Harlem Children’s Zone from the Wall Street crash, as reported in the Wall Street Journal.

Locally and nationally, it is often difficult to maintain large-scale work such as NAZ as leadership changes and funders change priorities. NAZ has already begun work with Wilder Research to find ways to measure the collaborative’s success, what is working and what isn’t, to quantify its worth and maintain support.

Still, it’s an experiment. While Canada created his own institution, Walker said, NAZ is trying to focus the work of many north side institutions on supporting student achievement. “That is a new thing,” he said.