Way to Grow shows one way to close the achievement gap

Intensive home program supports students and their families



News Analysis

By Dwight Hobbes

Contributing Writer


Way to Grow Executive Director Carolyn Smallwood is passionate about the community empowerment institution. Sitting in a South Minneapolis coffee shop, she animatedly attests, “I have been blessed over the past eight years to be affiliated with such a great organization. It’s an honor. We have great staff. We’ve made a

Carolyn Smallwood MSR file photo
Carolyn Smallwood
MSR file photo

significant impact in the community. We’ve positioned Way to Grow [as] a prominent and premier organization.”

Since 1989 when it began as a program of the Minneapolis Youth Coordinating Board, Way to Grow has extended an invaluable service to meet a critical need, interceding on behalf of youngsters who, despite the “no child left behind” platitude, indeed have long languished in the educational system’s rearview mirror. The organization was developed to, of course, support youngsters.

However, it included a key component, stepping in to provide resources and encouragement for parents. As the mission statement says, “[Way to Grow’s] core philosophy is that parents are their child’s first and most important teachers.”

In September of 2004, when Smallwood stepped on board, a good thing got better. The City of Minneapolis and the board of directors, in the process of separating Way to Grow from the Minneapolis Youth Coordinating Board, hired her to helm the transition. As a result, along with providing intensive, hands-on interaction in the home, there was a strengthening of the early education component that has taken place over the course of almost a decade.

“We have extended our home visits,” she recalls, “and our curriculum, from prenatal to five years old, [to serving] families with children from K-3.”

The initiative, listening to Smallwood describe the intensity of its focus, could be called “leave no stone unturned” in being of the greatest aid possible to households in need of support.

“We have established ourselves as a very intensive home program which covers health education, connection to family resources…meaning that we have to make sure the families are stabilized with food, clothing, housing, medical as well as early education specialists.”

After all, no child is going to learn well on an empty stomach, too busy contending with missed-meal cramps to pay attention to reading, writing and arithmetic. He or she is not going to fare very well either in an environment where the abiding concern is how to have a roof overhead.

In 2012, Way to Grow completed roughly 11,000 home visits, serving 1,321 kids of 960 parents, 244 being pregnant mothers. Agency referrals numbering 2,362 were made in order to access, among other vital basic necessities, food, clothes and affordable housing.

Smallwood is quick to acknowledge that much of  the success of Way to Grow has come about through working in partnership with more than 50 organizations, not the least being Minneapolis Public Schools.

“We’re honored to be working with [MPS] teachers and administrators to ensure families continue the education process in kindergarten, first, second and third grades.”

It goes without saying, but nonetheless bears mentioning, that the lives in which Way to Grow makes such a difference largely are those of children of color, the saddest victims of an achievement gap that has seen White children enjoy an unconscionable advantage in education. “Ninety percent are kids of color. Seven languages are spoken in our organization.”

Asked whether Way to Grow is effective in doing something concrete about the disparity that has gone on so long, Smallwood exclaims, “Oh, God, yes! Absolutely. We’re pretty excited about that.”

Again, progress can’t happen in a vacuum, without Way to Grow connecting with outside resources. “We cannot do this by ourselves, and we have to depend on policy makers to continue advocating for education and attempting to create policy that will let [grass-root initiatives] like Way to Grow to close that achievement gap.”

Closing said gap is about a great deal more than how many test scores improve on a statistic sheet. As education of the young goes, so goes the future of a people.

Accordingly, she adds, “We want parents to know their children are contributing to society.” Pursuant to which, it is one thing to preach to parents about the importance of their youngsters getting an education. It is altogether something else to roll up your sleeves, step through the doors of people’s homes, and help them help their children.

Carolyn Smallwood sums up, “We are having a major impact in the community.”


For more information on Way to Grow, go to their website at http://mplswaytogrow.org or call them at 612-874-4740. 

Dwight Hobbes welcomes reader responses to P.O. Box 50357, Mpls., 55403.