A decade-long partnership with schools

For Breanna Parslow, an AchieveMpls Career and College Center coordinator at South and Southwest high schools, the task of preparing students for post-graduation education and employment offers no greater reward than hearing these words: “You gave me hope.”


“I’ve had several students who told me that, and that’s the best compliment for me,” Parslow said in June, when AchieveMpls celebrated the 10th anniversary of its partnership with Minneapolis Public Schools (MPS).


Parslow works for AchieveMpls, not the district, but her close working relationship with the counseling staffs at both South and Southwest resembles the relationship her employer has developed with the city’s public schools since 2002: independent but aligned, and intently focused on creating pathways to success for Minneapolis youth.


AchieveMpls is often described as the district’s nonprofit fundraising partner, and it has helped the district win significant grants, including $13 million in pledges from Target, Cargill, General Mills and Medtronic in 2011, funds that will support district science, technology, engineering and math programs. But AchieveMpls is not simply a foundation, and its work goes beyond attracting financial support to MPS, said Pam Costain, who left the School Board to become AchieveMpls’ second-ever CEO in 2010.


“Historically, we had this fundraising commitment, but we also were the place where business partnerships were developed, where the broader community got connected to the schools,” Costain said.


AchieveMpls is an intermediary between the district and the public, one channel through which district successes and challenges are relayed to taxpayers. But as a much smaller, more nimble organization than the district, it is also a place to foster innovative programs — like those Career and College Centers, now located in every district high school, or STEP-UP Achieve, a significant component of the city’s expanding youth employment initiative.


A stable partner


The AchieveMpls model is known as a local education fund, and it’s just one of dozens of independent nonprofits working closely with their local school districts around the country. The model emerged nationally in the early 1980s, but it wasn’t until 2002 in Minneapolis that the Minneapolis Public Schools Foundation merged with Youth Trust, a business-supported initiative to grow a better local workforce by improving schools.


At the time, Superintendent Bernadeia Johnson was still a principal at Elizabeth Hall International Elementary School on the North Side. As Johnson rose to the district’s top job, she also witnessed AchieveMpls evolve into what she called “an incubator of great ideas.”


That didn’t take long. STEP-UP Achieve launched in 2004, and the Career and College Centers opened in 2005 with support from former Medtronic CEO Win Wallin.


“I don’t know if Achieve saw itself 10 years ago where it is today,” Johnson said. “If you think about the purpose and role it’s serving now, it has in some ways become integral to the work that we’re doing in the district.”


Costain, a member of the School Board that selected Johnson for the district’s top job, said that partnership “probably starts with the superintendent and I.”


Costain was a School Board member and Johnson the district’s chief academic officer in 2007, when they both helped guide development of MPS’s five-year strategic plan. They share a common understanding of the district’s challenges and its strategies for success.


Preparing students


It’s AchieveMpls employees like Parslow who see the organization’s impact up close.


Traditionally, she explained, school counselors work with students in three areas: career development, personal social counseling and academic development. But in Minneapolis and many other parts of the country, they also manage huge caseloads of many more students than the 250-to-1 ratio recommended by the American School Counselor Association.


Parslow and her colleagues arrange visits to high schools by college representatives, organize career and college fairs, host federal student aid workshops for parents and also provide individual post-secondary counseling to students, essentially managing for the district’s school counselors that one area of their traditional domain.

“I see myself as an AchieveMpls employee, but then I also see myself as a part of the Southwest team,” Parslow said. “As a team, we’ve been really proud of the product, which is the students who graduate from Southwest High School.”



Jeremiah Brown is director of the organization’s other marquee program, STEP-UP Achieve, which trains and places a significant portion of the nearly 2,000 14–21 year olds who participate in the city’s youth employment program annually. More than nine out of 10 who find summer employment through STEP-UP Achieve come from low-income families.


“AchieveMpls has really taken up the calling of making sure our young people are prepared for the world beyond high school,” Brown said. “We want to graduate all the kids in Minneapolis with a real good understanding of what their future might hold and how to attain that future.”


Still growing


Brown said STEP-UP Achieve may soon expand its summer job offerings to 900 positions from about 750 today, and is looking into both new fall and spring internships as well as closer ties with local industries that will result in “career pipelines” for Minneapolis students. Behind the changes is a $500,000 grant awarded AchieveMpls earlier this year, one that Costain described as “transformational.”


The grant from Minneapolis businessman Tom Grossman will also fund a new director of Measurement and Accountability position at AchieveMpls. That person, to be hired by late summer or early fall, will help shape the conversation around Minneapolis schools by translating district data into easily digestible reports on its challenges and successes, Costain said.


She also looked forward to “launching a pretty major young-alumni program,” one that would draw 20- and 30-something graduates back to their Minneapolis schools as mentors, volunteers and role models.


Said Costain: “There’s a lot of talent and goodwill that needs to come into our schools, and we see ourselves as the bridge.”



Reach Dylan at [email protected]