Phyllis Wheatley Center forms partnerships to close gap in North Minneapolis


For twenty-two years, Phyllis Wheatley Community Center has been operating the Academic Achievement Program in various forms, servicing children in need of academic assistance to enhance their scholastic success. In addition to homework help and tutoring, students also receive lessons in financial literacy and culturally acute subject matter.The benefits extend far beyond academics.

Through a one-on-one small group style of learning, students build self-esteem and confidence in their ability to excel.

Over the years, the program has endured lots of transition. But, Youth Services Manager Deb Tomasino says they are trying to fashion the structure much like the original format — with attention to those students with low test scores, those who aren’t reading at grade level, and those recommended by school teachers and counselors.

“The bottom line is to close the achievement gap and bring them to grade level and beyond,” said Steven Gustafson, director of development and marketing. “We believe we can make an impact with the after-school component.”

The program has a 98 percent proficiency success rate in the areas of math, reading, computer skills, financial literacy, social skills, self esteem, the environment and science.

A unique partnership has formed to ensure this success continues and to track progress with individual students. Hamline University’s Center for Excellence in Urban Teaching (CEUT)and the University of Minnesota’s Center for School Change have partnered with Phyllis Wheatley and Bethune School, each with specific roles.

“My primary responsibility is to help train faculty at Bethune on ways to increase family involvement,” said Joe Nathan, director for the Center of School Change. Nathan was instrumental in training Bethune faculty about a special teacher, parent, and student conference to be held before the beginning of the school year.

“This helps make the first contact between home and school a positive one,” said Nathan. “It also helps the school learn more about family priorities.”

“There is extensive research showing that increasing family involvement can help increase student achievement and improve student attitudes toward learning and their school,” Nathan continued. He will also be training faculty to develop ways within their curriculum to promote family involvement.

“For example,” said Nathan, “faculty might ask students, as part of their study of American history, to interview people about the family history. Or, faculty might ask families to teach their children to understand how they use math to make decisions about which items are better bargains when they go to the store,” he added.

“This builds positive relationships not based upon something bad happening in the classroom, and even provides some leverage for the teacher,” said Tomasino of the training.

Hamline’s CEUT is vested in connecting research to real time. Upholding a philosophy that “Every child is a genius,” CEUT helps instructors apply research and best practices for urban-like learners.

The Urban Learning Framework from CEUT requires everyday learning with everyday reality.

Students are encouraged to apply what they are learning, thereby turning students into lifelong learners whose self-esteem and confidence instills the desire to learn. “Once instructors have captured their imaginations and tapped into their interests, students are able to realize their possibility and begin to embrace a new language: I can,”said Gustafson.

Students are mainly selected according to their test scores. “That’s the benchmark,” said Tomasino.

“We also track the students’progress midway through the school year,then at the end.”

Tomasino acknowledges that testing does not assess other variables such as social issues, self-esteem, or the attitude as expressed by a particular child.

“Our goal is to engage students in a way so they’re not looking at the teacher with boredom,” said Roslyn Givens, academic achievement coordinator.

Whether the lesson is in math, reading or science, program instructors often incorporate more enticing approaches to learning.

“We listen to music, break down the words,and sometimes we even act out what they read… There’s movement… We make it come to life,” Givens added.

The children are enrolled as long as there is a need. “The staff’s goal is to work ourselves out of being needed,” said Gustafson.

There are benefits for parents, as well. Phyllis Wheatley hosts a Parent Academy in six-week sessions throughout the school year. The staff provides incentives and encouragement to get families involved.

“We let them [parents] know that they are our partners in education. This is their opportunity to foster curiosity and a love of learning at home,” said Gustafson. Parents are even issued certificates, gifts, and a ceremonious family meal upon completionof the program.

“It’s very valuable to have a strong, positive working relationship between the home and school,” said Nathan. “Virtually every family can help their child/children do better in school.”

The program runs on shared resources. In addition to the higher education partners, Phyllis Wheatley staff, Bethune teachers, and even volunteers who’ve made phone calls to non-English speaking families all contribute to the program’s success.

Mentors are also part of the program. Community members volunteer their time to focus on the needs of the student. Mentoring services are school-based.

Brad Bourn, volunteer services coordinator, says they are always in need of mentors and tutors, especially for one-on-one help,small group work, and even reading to students once or more a week. “The only requirement is caring about kids,’ he said.

For more information on the Academic Achievement Program, contact Roslyn Givens at 612-374-4342, or visit Phyllis Wheatley’s website at

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