Strengthening urban and rural place

How is the Northside Achievement Zone finding solutions that are applicable both in urban and rural settings?
Sondra Samuels

Sondra Samuels, president of the Northside Achievement Zone (NAZ), says the roots of the educational program derived from the 2003 launch of the Peace (Public Engagement and Community Empowerment) Foundation, which was designed to heal youth impacted by violence in North Minneapolis. It became clear that the common denominator in the high numbers of children murdered in the community had been lack of aspiration. Family dysfunction and a disconnection to education were impacting too many youth. Children shut down when in crisis, she says — when there is a lack of healthy foods and activities.

The Peace Foundation brought petting zoos into the dangerous parts of town, held vigils where youth were killed, and made police central to the work. “There are good cops who want to be peace officers,” she says. “In places of pain, it is important to know you are not alone.”

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NAZ grew out of the recognition that the way to curb violence is to increase education, starting with early childhood and including afterschool programs. They began to offer wrap-around team support for parents and their “scholars,” as students are called — with achievement coaches, counselors, prep school liaisons.

The program has been replicated in a rural town in eastern Kentucky, with similar success. It is about bringing community together to create opportunities — including improving mental and physical health — which supports school districts in getting kids career- and college-ready through multiple approaches.

“It’s not only an urban issue. It’s all about addressing disparities, knowing solutions need to come from that place, where people are feeling isolated, disinvested, behind, missing social and emotional supports. Every child needs to feel loved, but particularly those steeped in generational poverty. It is about creating a culture of achievement. Schools cannot do it alone.”

Samuels says being ready for kindergarten is key. As is teaching experience. Currently the teachers with longest tenure are placed in schools that have the most resources.


One of the many early education programs around Minnesota making a difference is Way to Grow, where one parent says the difference has been remarkable between her younger children’s readiness for school compared to her older children who were not in the program. Nimo’s  seven-year-old son “surprised the school – the way he behaves, discipline, sharing, how he gives his opinions when they ask questions, everything.”  


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