Matt, a young student in Wayzata Schools, wouldn’t be able to grow his musical talents without help from Gleason Lake Elementary Secretary Kathy Mueller, who drives him to lessons and performances when his mother can’t because she is working hard to become a nurse.

Nate has three brothers. His father, who comes from the small African nation of Togo, is studying to get a college degree. The boys have been able to partake in some after-school and summer support programs. Nate loves math, and has earned scores that exceed standards on the Minnesota Comprehensive Assessment (MCA) math tests. His older brother Ezekiel is getting ready to start high school, and plans on taking honors courses.

Like Nate, young Fadumo also participates in support programs, and she has also earned MCA scores that exceed standards. Her younger brother Ibrahim is enrolled in an early childhood program so he can be ready when he starts school.

Without a little extra help from community members, volunteers, support programs and scholarships to partake in those programs, some or all of those Wayzata students could be struggling in school and earning grades lower than those of their counterparts who come from more affluent families. The young people shared their stories during the Aug. 5 kick-off event for Great Expectations, which is a collaboration between Orono and Wayzata Schools and Interfaith Outreach & Community Partners (IOCP) aimed at closing the achievement gap. The goal of the program is to use the power of the whole community to help every child meet grade expectations and have an opportunity to pursue continuing education after high school graduation.

“The goals are simple, achieving them is complex,” IOCP Executive Director LaDonna Hoy said. “This is not a short-term, one-and-done venture.”

The number of students living in poverty in the Orono and Wayzata school districts has grown by 51 percent over the past decade. In addition to the 1,527 students in the two districts who lived in poverty during the 2014-2015 school year, more students are coming from homes where languages other than English are spoken. There are 60 languages other than English spoken in the homes of families in the Orono and Wayzata districts. The diverse culture is exposing all students to new perspectives, yet it also comes with its own set of challenges.

In the 2013-2014 school year in Orono and Wayzata, 37 percent of black and Hispanic students were deemed ready for kindergarten as opposed to 73 percent of white and Asian students. Likewise, 46 percent of black and Hispanic children were proficient in third-grade reading as opposed to 90 percent of white and Asian students in the two districts. The achievement gap isn’t just visible between students of different races. Economics also matter. Among students on free or reduced price lunch, 42 percent tested proficient in third-grade reading, while 80 percent of children not on free or reduced price lunch were proficient. The numbers are similar for students who tested proficient in eighth-grade math.

Closing the gap will take more than academic rigor, children also need support, Hoy said. Orono, Wayzata and IOCP officials will build on existing programs, such as the Caring for Kids Initiative, a collaborative scholarship program for low-income families that allows access to quality early education opportunities. Another example is CONECT (Community Organizations Networking Compassionately Together), which serves hundreds of families in multi-unit apartment neighborhoods by offering services such as the Homework Club, the free Camp CONECT in the summer, transportation to events and computer labs. Data will be collected and analyzed about how the programs help the participants and changes will be made based on that information.

“We have before us an enormous opportunity,” said Wayzata Executive Director of Teaching and Learning Dr. Jill Johnson.

Everyone in the community has a chance to contribute to the effort, she said, by giving of their time, expertise or money. She asked the crowd gathered at the kick-off event if they had the courage, vision and wisdom to start making a change in young people’s lives and to close the achievement gap.

“Do we have that in us? I think we do,” Johnson said.

“There’s a role for each and every one of us along the way,” Hoy said. “So let’s act.”

Reporter

Amanda Schwarze is a Lakeshore reporter who is passionate about local government and nonprofit projects. She is thoughtful and independent. Amanda loves traveling, cooking and spending time with her boyfriend and their two cats (Buddy Guy and Spotacus).

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