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Our view: Community approach can lift up Duluth students

A school district by itself is unlikely to improve graduation rates or to narrow the achievement gap between white students and students of color. Duluth is a prime example; heaven knows the Duluth school district has been trying.

Cartoonist's view
(Bob Englehart / Cagle Cartoons)

A school district by itself is unlikely to improve graduation rates or to narrow the achievement gap between white students and students of color. Duluth is a prime example; heaven knows the Duluth school district has been trying.

But an entire community can do it.

"When different stakeholders -- from the public schools to the United Way to community agencies like the YMCA to business leaders and others -- get together to focus on a common agenda and then measure the same outcomes and point toward the same goals and check their progress, together, amazing things can happen. You need to leverage everyone's expertise," Rebecca Kelley, an attorney, youth advocate and the vice president of the YMCA of Greater Cincinnati, said in an interview last week with the News Tribune Opinion page.

"We can accomplish more with our combined strength than any one agency or group can achieve on their own," said Kelley, who'll be in Duluth tomorrow as a featured speaker.

Her message, and her strategy, will be more than worthy of our apt attention. In Cincinnati, something called a Strive Initiative, with which she was actively involved, elevated graduation rates from 51 percent to 82 percent and nearly eliminated the city's achievement gap, narrowing it from 14.5 percent to 1.2 percent.

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This woman knows what she's talking about.

And what she's talking about is what the United Way of Greater Duluth has been working with the Duluth school district and others to accomplish since November 2010. Its Delegation of Educational Outcomes will provide an update on efforts before Kelley offers remarks during a public event Tuesday in the Holiday Inn Downtown. The update is expected to precede a public call to action, including specific things community leaders can work on and can do to make a difference -- and to help incorporate the strategies being brought by Kelley.

"At this point, we're trying to raise awareness of the importance of the community supporting schools. We're all affected when kids aren't succeeding," Paula Reed, president of the United Way of Greater Duluth, said in a meeting with members of the News Tribune editorial board last week. "It's so doable here. We don't have a massive number of kids we need to lift up."

"We're excited. I'm excited," Duluth schools Superintendent Bill Gronseth added. "The achievement gap is a nationwide problem. To lift up kids we need to lift up families. And when we do we lift up our community."

Our community has some lifting to do. In 2009, only about three of four Duluth students earned a high school diploma in four years, according to the Minnesota Department of Education. Students facing racial and socioeconomic barriers in particular experienced difficulties staying engaged and on track, the department reported. And while the state enjoys some of the highest ACT scores in the nation, Minnesota's achievement gap is second-worst.

Kelley is confident Cincinnati's community-wide strategy, including schools that are community gathering places, can work in Duluth. It's being copied elsewhere around the country, she said.

"I'm super excited Duluth is going to follow this strategy. It has worked in Cincinnati," Kelley said. "A common agenda needs to be developed and then shared -- and then make sure everybody stays aligned. The idea is you're all in this together."

And together, amazing things can happen.

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