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'Transformation zone' centers on Latino children

A state Latino group is proposing to make Southeast Rochester into a "transformation zone," where the children of low-income minority families would receive early childhood education scholarships and mentors to help them get ready for kindergarten.

The proposal would make Rochester part of a statewide movement. In the last several years, transformation zones or "promise neighborhoods" have popped up in North Minneapolis, Itasca County and the White Earth Indian Reservation.

The idea is to flood these zones with resources, particularly mentors and scholarships to attend early childhood education programs that would deliver the kind of boost to at-risk children that would prepare them for school.

Minnesota and Rochester Latinos suffer from the worst high school graduation and achievement gap rates in Minnesota. Under the proposal, Latino families would be the first to benefit from these intensified services. But it eventually would ramp up to cover all poor minority families.

"You have some (Latino) parents who have two or three jobs. They come from backgrounds where there is no reading, and the kids start kindergarten and they get creamed," said Hector Garcia, executive director of the Chicano Latino Affairs Council, a statewide agency working to create the zone. "By the time they're in middle school, they start dropping out like flies."


The idea is still in the talking stage. The biggest hurdle to its realization is raising the millions, if not tens of millions, of dollars needed to support such an ambitious endeavor. For instance, the Northside Achievement Zone in North Minneapolis, after which Rochester's plan would be modeled, has been a $28 million effort.

'Get to the kids early'

The idea has benefited from some notable advocates, including that of Art Rolnick, a former research director at the Federal Reserve of Minneapolis and an ardent apostle of the benefits of early childhood education.

"If we can get these services to these families, we've got all this neuroscience research that shows that 30, 40 years later, these kids are successful in life," Rolnick said. "They are much less likely to commitment crimes. There are lot of benefits if we get to the kids early."

Early childhood education has been a hot topic at both the state and federal level. Political observers say DFL Gov. Mark Dayton is likely to make it a top priority in the upcoming legislative session, which starts Jan. 6. Last week, President Barack Obama hosted a White House Summit on Early Learning, which Rolnick attended.

"So from high up, if you will, there's a commitment here to fund early learning for all of our vulnerable children," Rolnick said.

The Rochester plan is being promoted and coordinated by CLAC, a statewide agency that advises the governor on Latino matters. Rebeca Sedarski, a CLAC project coordinator and a one-time bilingual specialist for Rochester Public Schools, said the group would like to have the achievement zone started sometime in 2015 and have about 200 to 300 kids enrolled — if need be, by going door to door.

Funding remains the great unknown. Paul Fleissner, director of Olmsted County community services, calls the achievement zone idea a "great model" that has gotten good results where it has been tried. Yet, he struggles with where all the money is going to come from.


"I support early childhood education big time," Fleissner said. "But it's a very expensive model, so where is the funding going to come from? The last time I met with this group, they claimed they could bring in a certain amount of money as long as we could match it. Well, I'm not sure where those matching dollars are going to come from right now."

'Rochester listened to us'

CLAC officials say at least in the beginning, the amount of money needed wouldn't be anywhere near the huge amounts supporting the North Minneapolis project — probably somewhere from $1 million to $2 million.

In the beginning, Rochester's zone would have narrower focus than the North Minneapolis project, which aims to provide "cradle to grave" services. Rochester's would be limited to a smaller segment of the "pipeline," from pre-natal to right before kindergarten.

Hector Garcia, CLAC executive director, said Rochester was chosen as a site because "the leadership in Rochester listened to us, and that's pivotal."

Another factor was the city's Latino population, which makes up only 5 percent of Rochester's population. So far, all the achievement zones set up in Minnesota have focused on a particular minority community. North Minneapolis is generally focused on African-Americans, White Earth reservation on Native Americans, Itasca on Asians. Rochester offered the chance to focus on the growing Latino community.

Garcia said one reason he believes Rochester leaders have listened so keenly is the "full spectrum of our community" exists in the area. From the undocumented farmer who speaks little English to the businessman to the highly educated researcher at Mayo Clinic, Rochester has something that most Minnesota cities don't.

"It's a full community," Garcia said. "In the Twin Cities, that doesn't happen. Most people there don't know a Latino to begin with, so they judge by what they read in the papers. We're known as the silent community."


Yet Rochester's Latino student population shares the same struggles as its statewide counterparts. Its graduation rate at 53 percent is the worst among all racial groups in Rochester public schools, and is 35 percentage points lower than the graduation rates of whites.

The Latino population is also among the fastest growing. In 2006, Latinos made up 25 percent of Rochester school's minority population and 5.7 percent of total students. Today, those numbers are up to 35 percent and 8.8 percent. During that time, the district's minority community increased by 45 percent, while the number of Latino students grew by 61 percent.

Culture change

Some of the challenges Latino families face are cultural in nature. Many Latino families, for example, have little understanding of the concept of parental involvement in their child's education, although research has shown it's critical in a U.S. student's success.

"Part of our culture is to say, 'OK, I'm going to send Johnny to school and the teacher will take care of you, and I don't have to do anything,'" Sedarski said. "That's how we grew up in our countries of origin."

Rolnick doesn't sound as daunted by the money issue as perhaps others would be. He notes that where the political will exists, the money is usually found, whether that be the Mall of America or a new Minnesota Vikings stadium — or even Mayo Clinic's Destination Medical Center, which received half a billion in funding.

"You give me half a billion dollars for early learning, and I'll give you a much better economy 20 years down the road than anything you can invest in," Rolnick said.

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