Closing the gap: Generation Next seeks to erase educational achievement gap

Victor Cedeno
Victor Cedeno, director of networks and education policy at Generation Next

36 percent. 53 percent. 60 percent.

Sadly in this community, we can say that we can predict the likelihood of a child’s success by looking at the color of their skin. – R.T. Rybak, executive director of Generation Next

These are the 2014-15 gradua­tion rates for American Indians, blacks and Hispanics, respectively, in Minneapolis and St. Paul, according to recent data.

77 percent. 70 percent.

These are the graduation rates for the Twin Cities’ Asian and white students, respectively, in the same time period.

Those sobering statistics attest to one of the many harsh realities of the achievement gap, a major concern among educators and leaders across the state.

But Generation Next, a Minneapolis-based nonprofit that aims to close the education achieve­ment gap, is tackling this problem daily, focusing its efforts from “cradle to career,” or from pre-kindergarten through college.

“One of the reasons why I think Generation Next is necessary is because a lot of people are working on these issues every single day,” said Victor Cedeño, director of networks and education policy at Generation Next. “…The challenge with that is, you … lose the bigger picture.

“We’re the only people paid full-time to think about the bigger pic­ture. … We bring people together and look at the issues, and also look at the systems at hand to understand better the challenges that they’re facing.”

Announced in 2012, Generation Next is composed of a 5-member staff, including Cedeño and R.T. Rybak, the former Minneapolis mayor who now serves as execu­tive director. (The Minneapolis Foundation recently announced Rybak will be its new CEO and presi­dent. He will remain with Generation Next through July 1.) It also con­sists of a host of civic, business and education leaders. Generation Next brings local organizations, busi­nesses and nonprofits together and analyzes data in an effort to solve the achievement gap in the Twin Cities.

R.T. Ryback
Generation Next Executive Director R.T. Rybak stands near a whiteboard at the Generation Next offices in downtown Minneapolis during an interview in March.

The coalition has identified six areas, most of which were borrowed from the national StriveTogether model, to improve: kindergarten readiness, third-grade reading, eighth-grade math, social-emotional learning by eighth grade, high school graduation and post-secondary attainment.

These goals, Cedeño said, “are critical components, or critical moments in a child’s development.”

“It doesn’t mean that they’re the only (critical components),” he said. “But in terms of keeping attention on the achievement gap, it helps to have a defined list.”

The work

Within the last year, Generation Next has been working on a graduation tracking system that identifies where a student is falling behind, starting in the student’s freshman year, in an effort to raise graduation rates. It is working to institute better credit recovery options and ways to increase FAFSA completion. It has created a tutoring network in the Twin Cities and has helped provide 20,000 books to a local literacy organization.

The organization has met with teachers, counselors and principals to discuss how strategies can be imple­mented in schools and has worked on implementing data-sharing policies. It is working to improve early child­hood education, focusing on reduc­ing suspension and expulsion, and also increasing cultural competency of early childhood programming.

StriveTogether, the national network that Generation Next is modeled after, has had programs that have shown positive results in more than 20 metropolitan school districts, according to Generation Next’s web­site. Generation Next is still in the early stages of seeing results from its work, according to Rybak.

According to Generation Next’s 2015 annual report, the organiza­tion’s work has resulted in a 16-per­cent increase in preventive screening for 3-year-olds. Other efforts include an initiative aimed at improving the quality of licensed family child care in the next three years, an initia­tive that uses data to align literacy organizations and tutors’ efforts with schools, and more, according to the report.

Much of what the organization does, Rybak said, is break down the achievement gap into “targeted, understandable, digestible actions.” The white boards in Generation Next’s downtown Minneapolis office space show evidence for its motto of “Map, gap, role,” using graphs and visual representations to draw up plans of action.

Crunching the numbers

Generation Next uses demographic data from schools and programs to decide how to use its resources to help students. The organization’s data philosophy is to pay attention to nuances and also look for trends in relation to diversity.

“We have spent too much time trying to only understand why a diverse classroom creates challenges,” Rybak said, “and we need to pivot to also understand why every student learns more in a place where they have people from different perspectives.”

It’s also important to break down the data by race and get beyond the term “communities of color,” Rybak said. This attention to detail allows bigger and sometimes surprising trends to be discovered, he said.

“In many measurements, especially commitment to learning, many communities of color have a higher level than their white counterparts,” he said. “And that doesn’t show up when you just look at a math or reading score.”

Two of Generation Next’s partners agree that the organization has filled an important void in the community. At a Generation Next meeting focused on high school graduation and college and career readiness in March, Magdalena Wells, director of college access at College Possible, said Generation Next has helped College Possible grow and maintain its presence in the Twin Cities, as well as given the organization funding for partner-ships in the community.

Noam Wiggs, director of education and training at Minnesota Alliance with Youth, said Generation Next was “convening people that wouldn’t normally be in the same room,” and that its biggest impact is “data transparency (that) starts conversation.”

The vision of Generation Next, according to Rybak, is that every child thrives.

“Sadly, in this community, we can say that we can predict the likelihood of a child’s success by looking at the color of their skin,” he said. “… (It’s) the one thing that can stand between this community and greatness.”

Disclosure: ThreeSixty Journalism participates in Generation Next’s High School Graduation and College and Career Readiness networks.