On August 5 and 6, the Collegeville Institute’s Multi-Religious Fellows kicked off their meeting on “Educating our Youth for the 21st Century” at an atypical site: the East Side Freedom Library. The historic Carnegie library is an innovative learning and cultural center, committed to welcoming neighbors and visitors into personal and family story-telling, academic research, and cultural exchange among the diverse immigrant communities in Saint Paul’s historic Payne-Phalen neighborhood. The Multi-Religious Fellows met with founders of the library, Macalester College professors Beth Cleary and Peter Rachleff, who explained the library’s work with the community. They also enjoyed a supper catered by the Karen Market & Deli, one of the first businesses founded by the flourishing refugee community originally from Burma in the neighborhood.
The Fellows continued their meeting at the Minnesota Humanities Center, where they discussed the challenges Minnesota faces in preparing its youth for academic and professional success. The “achievement gap,” the disparity in academic performance between groups of students, is among the greatest of those challenges. In 2016, Minnesota Public radio reported: “Minnesota’s failure to graduate its high school students of color is among the worst in the nation. Students who are Native American, black, Hispanic or Asian-American are less likely to graduate on time than their counterparts in nearly every other state in the country.”
Leaders spearheading efforts to address these disconcerting trends spoke with the Fellows about their work. Augsburg University’s professor Dr. Audrey Lensmire, director of the university’s East African Student to Teacher program, and her colleague, Mariam Adam, a teacher at the Anne Sullivan Elementary School, elaborated on their partnership to recruit more teachers from Minnesota’s larger, more recent immigrant communities. Teachers from these communities, the presenters explained, will serve as more effective, visible role models for the tens of thousands of children whose families immigrated from Somalia, Eritrea, Kenya and Ethiopia.
The Fellows also met with Dr. Art Rolnick, retired senior Vice President of the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis, who is an advocate for K-12 education. Dr. Rolnick has garnered wide acclaim for his groundbreaking research on the personal and economic benefit of early childhood education. The Fellows were inspired by his passionate commitment to generating funding to address the enormous, vital needs of vulnerable children, and they engaged him in spirited conversation about ways their respective communities can help move this important work forward.
Dr. Kent Pekel, President of the Search Institute, a national educational research organization headquartered in Minneapolis, spoke with the Fellows about their research. He outlined the major results of the institute’s latest initiative aimed at analyzing the kinds of developmental relationships that can be catalytic for effective education and services for children and youth. Following Dr. Pekel’s presentation, Imam Abdisalam Adam, a Multi-Religious Fellows Advisory Board member and assistant principal at Saint Paul’s Highland Park High School, offered his “on the ground” reflections on the significance of this initiative for practical application in today’s schools.
Throughout the gathering, over meals and between formal sessions, the Fellows continued to build relationships with one another, as well as discuss the civic engagement projects they are undertaking with their respective communities. In a follow-up email, Dr. Pekel wrote: “I was energized and honored by my time with your group.”