Northside Achievement Zone


A Two-Generation Approach

How Northside Achievement Zone is Fighting Generational Poverty in North Minneapolis.

Sondra Samuels

If there’s one thing that stands out about Northside Achievement Zone (NAZ) in North Minneapolis, it’s their commitment to empowering parents right alongside students. NAZ works side-by-side with low-income families in the community to put their kids on a path to college and close the achievement gap.

“Parents are their children’s first teacher,” NAZ President and CEO Sondra Samuels says. “An army of empowered parents are also the fuel needed to put pressure on systems to remove barriers to their families’ overall success and their children’s academic and life success.”

America’s Promise Alliance is honoring Samuels for her work with Northside Achievement Zone with a Promise of America award in April, so we teamed up with America’s Promise youth board member Julie Pham and youth trustee Alexis Creamer to ask Samuels about the organization’s parent-centered approach, the barriers facing low-income families, and what NAZ needs to expand their outreach. Check out her answers to our questions below.

1. How does Northside Achievement Zone help to empower students, particularly low-income, first-generation students?

NAZ works to empower students, whom we refer to as, “scholars,” in a number of ways. First, most scholars are assigned a Family Achievement Coach. These coaches work with both the scholars and their families. Each coach is from the same community where the scholars are from and serve as role models and guides. By being located in all the partner schools our scholars attend, Coaches can provide daily support and encouragement to scholars in their academics and social emotional challenges. Coaches help keep the scholars focused on their goals by working with them to create and implement their own scholar achievement plans, which guide all their decisions and plans.

One Northside Achievement Zone (NAZ) Generation

Middle school and high school scholars are also encouraged to participate in our Empowerment training, an eight-week program that enables them to address trauma and core hurts in their lives and build resiliency and confidence in their limitless potential. Finally, youth are increasingly given opportunities to utilize their leadership skills in our community through advocacy events, marches (20 NAZ youth will be attending the “March for Our Lives” rally), and community engagement.

2. What are the most common barriers you see standing in the way of youth being successful, particularly in North Minneapolis?

There are two key barriers to the success of our youth. The first is the “effective discouragement,” which has led to a belief gap that has happened systematically and historically to low-income people of color.

Systemic racism, community isolation, and historic disinvestment have caused a belief and vision gap in the minds of community members themselves, their teachers, their elected officials, their civic leaders and their neighbors. The gap is that too many people doubt whether poverty can ever be addressed and if low-income kids from certain zip codes can truly overcome their circumstances and succeed academically and in life.

The second barrier are the systems that hurt people and keep them trapped in poverty, such as education, workforce development, housing, and health. Through our data analysis of what works and what doesn’t work, it has become abundantly clear that the policies and laws these systems are based on serve as the real barriers to upward mobility and educational success.

3. On your website, you talk about the importance of empowering parents to be leaders of a college-going culture and working with them every step of the way. What have been some of the benefits (and challenges) of embracing this model?

A model of empowerment for parents is beneficial because parents have the greatest influence and power over the quality of life for their children. Parents are their children’s first teacher. Since 80 percent of a child’s brain is developed by the time he/she is three years old, empowered parents will have the skills and knowledge to support and encourage their healthy development. An army of empowered parents are also the fuel needed to put pressure on systems to remove barriers to their families’ overall success and their children’s academic and life success.

The greatest barrier to parent empowerment is poverty, which keeps low-income parents from having the capacity to take control of their lives and their children’s lives through advocacy. For example, if a parent is worried about becoming homeless, how they will pay the rent, buy food, or get their mental health needs met, they have little emotional or mental capacity to engage in efforts to organize and advocate for their children and/or policies that with support their stability and upward mobility. A part of all of this is what was mentioned earlier—effective disappointment that leads to the egregious belief gap.

4. How has Northside Achievement Zone evolved over time given political and cultural changes on both the local and national level?

The core vision and mission of NAZ has not changed. We envision a prosperous North Minneapolis—where all children of color are healthy, secure, and academically successful, ultimately realizing their unlimited potential. Our mission is to end multi-generational poverty in North Minneapolis by building a culture of achievement where all low-income children of color graduate high school college and career-ready. We accomplish this through our results-driven collaboration with parents, community organizations and schools.

Group of teens from Northside Achievement Zone (NAZ) baking cookies with Cookie Cart

When we began our journey eight years ago, our strategy was and still is to break up the silos that exist in the social sector and the educational establishment by creating one system of support for the families and children who would benefit most. Today, our opportunity network is made up of 40 nonprofit partners and schools who specialize in career, housing, health, early childhood, K-12 education, college and expanded learning programming.

Together, with the parenting education and empowerment classes, shared data tracking system and evaluation support we provide, we are drastically improving the odds for our families in North Minneapolis. Our data proves that our children are on a college trajectory and their parents are stabilizing and improving their families’ lives.

5. If you could name one thing that could help take your programs to the next level and reach more families, what would it be and why?

There are two things: policy change and resources. We have spent the last eight years ideating, building, and fully implementing our model. Through this process we have gained significant proof points about what works and what policies need to be created and/or changed to significantly improve the lives of families and scholars in North Minneapolis. Now is the time to accelerate our results and scale them to more of the 966 families and over 2,200 scholars, (0-18 years old). Our goal is not to expand the number of families we are serving in the next few years but to expand the number of families we are currently partnered with that are making significant progress.

Expanding our results will take significant resources to sustain our work. About a year ago, a five-year $28 million federal grant that allowed NAZ to scale our work ended. We are now fully scaled and in the process of replacing the federal funds that we no longer receive year after year.

Regarding policy, we know that as we successfully advocate to remove barriers for our families and children while creating opportunities, they will thrive. For example, the county has instituted a policy called “presumptive eligibility” to ensure that low-income parents who are on a career track are able to access childcare. This allows them to go back to work with a safe and nurturing place for their younger children to go to receive care. Before this policy, parents were unable to go back to work. No access to childcare was the barrier.

For more information on other Promise of America award recipients, visit our Promise Night webpage.