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MN: Community puts children first


St. Louis Park shows how to put children first.

Summary: Using a program that embodies forty developmental assets for youth, this community has moblized to help its children become better students who are not only faring well academically but becoming responsible community members as well.and instruction to graduate all of its students from high school on time and send almost three-quarters of them on to college.

In 1993, the city of St. Louis Park, Minn., became the first in the nation to embrace a "developmental assets" framework as the guiding approach to community-wide mobilization on behalf of young people. The framework was developed by the Search Institute, a Minneapolis-based non-profit organization concerned with children and communities. Today, nearly 600 communities across the United States and Canada use asset-building approaches.

The initiative—located in St. Louis Park—that directs much of that effort was created the next year and is called Children First. Founded by a partnership between the business, city, education, health, and faith communities, "Children First is about creating kids who are interested in giving back and making their world a better place," said Debra Bowers, superintendent of St. Louis Park Public Schools.

This initiative was different from most community-wide efforts focused on children and youth:  Instead of focusing on preventing specific problems, Children First emphasizes building strengths. The initiative has rapidly spread to organizations and individuals throughout the city, which is located just west of Minneapolis.

"It's a philosophy rather than a program," its supporters like to point out. One that has brought a powerful connection between the city and its schools.

District characteristics
Name: St. Louis Park
State: MN
Type: Suburban
Grades: K–12
Enrollment: 4,261
Students per teacher: n.a.

Enrollment characteristics
Economically disadvantaged: 27.8%
English language learners: 6.8%
Students with disabilities: 15.8%
White: n.a.
Black: n.a.
Hispanic: n.a.
Asian/Pacific Islander: n.a.
American Indian/Alaska Native: n.a.
Minority population: 30%
Source: St. Louis Park Public Schools

 "Children First is an initiative, not an organization or a bureaucracy," said Keith Broady, chair of the St. Louis Park Public Schools school board. "The adult leadership role in the initiative has rotated among the school, business, city, and non-profit communities within St. Louis Park."

Schools benefit from community’s focus on youth

Children First calls the entire community to provide support for youth. The developmental asset framework identifies 40 "developmental nutrients" all youth need to be healthy, caring, and responsible. The assets are divided between internal and external. An example of an internal asset: "Achievement motivation: Young person is motivated to do well in school." External: "Other adult relationships: Young person receives support from three or more nonparent adults."

Search Institute also developed appropriate sets of assets for infants, toddlers, preschoolers, and elementary-age children. At most levels, about half of the 40 would be directly aimed at learning or schools. But when a community focuses like this on its youth, its schools benefit.

More than 1,200 of students' parents, along with over 250 community members, volunteer in St. Louis Park schools every year. The effort goes the other direction as well. For example, the school district’s athletic teams work to help senior citizens in a variety of projects from the mundane to the extensive.

The school district’s community education effort is a big outreach as well, not only staying busy providing a long list of classes and programs, but in collecting plenty of data. For example, community education’s "action objectives" include:

  • Establishing a web presence that includes the components of marketing and registration.
  • Conducting a market analysis that identifies who you are and are not serving.
  • Developing and implementing a city-wide adult learning marketing plan.
  • Securing funding streams to support marketing activities.
  • Gathering data on who is volunteering in the senior program.

Children First is funded through donations. The school provides offices for the director and in-kind contributions. A recent delegation to the school district asking about its Children First program made quite a trip: They were from Indonesia.

Initiative encourages support for schools

The integration with its community, through Children First and its own directed programs, has benefited the school district in crucial ways. The St. Louis Park community approved an operating levy in 2001, and in 2004 voters approved both an operating levy and a bond referendum.

"The 2004 vote was by about 2 to 1," Bowers said. "The city council supported us, as did so many groups and agencies. All of those pieces came together."

The school district pursues excellence voraciously. Ninety percent of the school district's graduating class of 2004 chose to attend postsecondary school. In recent years, all seven St. Louis Park Public Schools have been designated Blue Ribbon Schools of Excellence by the U.S. Department of Education.

In 2005, St. Louis Park High School was once again ranked as one of the top 1000 public high schools in America byNewsweek magazine, entering the chart at No. 305. Only two Minnesota public high schools were ranked higher. St. Louis Park made "The List" in 2004 as well, at number 567. 

The school district has embraced technology as well. Every school has video surveillance cameras, pass card entrance during the school day, and alcohol and drug education programs.

A study on the district’s Children First efforts, released in 2003, showed that the community’s youth experience just over half of the 40 identified assets, but that the overall level had risen significantly over the life of the study. The study also revealed that the more assets a student experiences, the more likely the student is to do well in school. This is especially true for younger students. Risk behaviors have decreased in recent years among the community’s youth, the study reported. The study points to a key goal: Focus on those who are left behind.

Bowers said the district wants to improve its data disagregation capabilities, so important characteristics of each student’s academic needs can be readily available. "Here in St. Louis Park, it is easy to see how we are all woven together."

Visit the St. Louis Park Public Schools web site and the community's Children First web site for more information.

Lessons learned
  •  A community partnership and shared focus based on research-driven goals, between school district, city government, local organizations and businesses, and individuals can pay off in important ways for schools. "It's important that everyone has the same goals," Bowers says.
  • Make the school district's goals public and make sure they are part of your everyday work. "I made sure we printed up brochures describing our strategic plan, and we have them all over," Bowers says. "Whenever we do anything, we make sure it fits in with the strategic plan."
  • In a community-wide partnership like this one, school boards should find their proper role. Here, the role of the board is to actively support the developmental assets and the principles of Children First together with other community members and partners. It is not the role of the board to govern, direct, or oversee the initiative.


Debra Bowers


6425 West 33rd St.

St. Louis Park, Minn. 55426-3498

Phone: (952) 928-6000

Email: bowers.debra@slpschools.org.

Posted: November 16, 2005

©2005 Center for Public Education

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