Hope Academy and Minneapolis

jarmoluk / Pixabay
jarmoluk / Pixabay

Hope Academy and Education Reform

Can we really close the achievement gap between white students and students of color? My experience of working with families at Hope Academy for the last 15 years is that we can.  However, most initiatives to close the achievement gap are based on misleading or superficial understandings of the root of the problem. Most leaders have suggested that teacher pay, or teacher unions, or a greater use of technology or more frequent testing will solve the problem.

My conviction is that these solutions betray a woefully inadequate understanding of the problem. The root of the achievement gap runs far, far deeper. It’s connected to the spiritual wasteland of our inner cities, and any effective solution for closing the gap must address this root problem.

The Heart of the Problem

The miseducation of inner-city youth is the greatest social justice issue of our day. This education crisis is also the kindling fueling last year’s riots in Ferguson and in Baltimore. In my neighborhood of Minneapolis, only 35% of my neighbors of color will graduate from high school in four years. And those who do graduate will, on average, only be able to read at an eighth grade level. Right in the heart of the state with the highest average ACT scores in the country, there’s a dark underbelly. Shamefully, our state leads the country in the size of the achievement gap, which means that children of different races in our city will likely have different futures.

The social, economic, and personal costs of this gap are just staggering. For instance, the Minneapolis Foundation estimates that the failure to graduate students of color at the same rate as white students will cost Minnesota’s economy $1.3 billion a year by 2020. And today, 1 out of every 9 African-American men in our country, between the ages of 20-24, is in prison. And several states believe they have figured out the link. They are building prison capacities based on 3rd grade reading scores, because they’ve discovered that if you aren’t reading by 3rd grade, the likelihood of being incarcerated at some time in your life is almost guaranteed.

I came face to face with this crisis when I moved my own family into the Phillips Neighborhood of South Minneapolis 24 years ago. My wife and I asked ourselves, “As followers of Christ who were called to be the light of the world, where in our city was most in need of the light of the gospel?”

After moving in, we began driving our own children out to the suburbs to give them a Christ-centered education. After several years, we felt a growing conviction that we were failing to love our neighbors as ourselves. Just like the priest in the story of the Good Samaritan, each morning I was driving right past my neighbors and praying that God would tell someone to do something about this problem. That someone was me. So with fear and trembling, in 1999 I quit my job, to help start a school for my neighbors called Hope Academy.

Hope’s Five Core Strategies

During these last 15 years, through much trial and error, we’ve learned five important things about reversing the curse of educational failure in our city.

  1. First, we believe the greatest hope for reversing the crisis is found in the transformation promised in the gospel of Christ. You must begin by re-building a foundation of morality and righteousness anchored by faith in the grace of God. The reason for this is fairly obvious. The main problem in the world is within us. It’s our hearts that need changing above all else. And I know of only one power in the universe sufficient to change a person’s heart.
  2. Secondly, you reform inner-city schools by expecting great things from inner city families. Why shouldn’t we expect virtuous, moral behavior from inner-city children? Why shouldn’t we teach algebra to third graders and Latin to fourth graders and calculus to seniors? Or why shouldn’t we have a 10 month school year? We must be vigilant to guard against “the soft bigotry of low expectations.”
  3. Third, you reform education in the inner-city by not ignoring, but actively involving inner-city parents and helping them to fulfill their God-given responsibilities to lead and teach their children. Each October, all our teachers take 3 days to do a home visit with each family in their class. And twice a year, all our parents come to school on a Saturday morning to receive training and to experience a day of school with their children. We must work with parents as authentic partners.
  4. Fourth, you reform education in the city when you hold teachers, parents, and students accountable for their responsibilities. If you don’t do your homework at Hope Academy, guess what happens? Instead of going home on the bus you’re assigned to the Academic Support Center after school until you do get the work done, just like in the real world. And if, as a parent, you don’t attend your child’s Parent-Teacher Conference, guess what? You are asked to keep your child at home until you do get the conference scheduled.
  5. Finally, because of the way schools are currently funded, we can only carry out all this good in the city by partnering urban children with scholarship partners. In almost every independent school, 90% of the operating costs are paid for by parent tuition. At Hope Academy, that percentage is flipped—our parents all have skin in the game and pay 10% of the costs, and generous partners come alongside each child and commit to a $7000 annual scholarship. So far at Hope, no child has been turned away for lack of funds.

Today, beyond my wildest dreams, after 15 years, Hope Academy is serving:

  • 425 inner-city students K-12 (75% of which live in poverty)
  • Academic achievement is almost 3x’s greater than our neighborhood schools
  • 95% of our first four graduating classes have been accepted to two and four year colleges
  • Our first graduating class had a National Merit Scholar who received a full ride to Wellesley
  • Last year’s graduating class had 5 students who together received $800,000 in college scholarship awards

Let me conclude by telling you a story about another neighbor of mine, a young woman named DaVonne. Davonne first came to Hope Academy 15 years ago as the oldest of three children, born to a teenage mom. By second grade, she was already showing signs of failure in school and so her mom moved her over to Hope.

Her mom struggled initially with all that was now expected of her at her daughter’s new school, but she soon came to understand that she was the key to her daughter’s success. She received valuable support from other women she met at a mid-week Bible study for moms. And she turned her life around.

DaVonne also had a turnaround. She learned to love school, and became an academic all-star. As a result of studying Latin for 5 years, DaVonne came to enjoy learning languages, and today she speaks five languages, plus sign language.

Not only did DaVonne graduate from high school, but she received a full scholarship to North Central University, where she is in her final semester.

One of my favorite parts of this story is how DaVonne already sees herself as an important contributor to our community. For the last two years, she has volunteered to coordinate Hope Academy’s JumpStart for Reading Program, where she oversees volunteers coming to read with our first grade students over the lunch hour. What an inspiration DaVonne is to all of us!

Proverbs 11:10 says, “When the righteous prosper, the city rejoices.”

Can we close the achievement gap? Absolutely!

I believe that our cities will be won by whoever brings its youth the greatest hope. Hope Academy illustrates that in the Lord, there is hope for the future of our children.

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