The 13-by-18 block area of North Minneapolis, a city with one of the worst achievement gaps in the nation, is a designated racially concentrated area of poverty. The median income for families in the Zone is $18,000, and a full quarter of its 5,500 students are homeless or highly mobile (Minneapolis Public Schools, 2011). Children and families in the Zone are exposed to many risk factors, including high rates of violent crime, poor health, and housing and financial instability. Kindergarten readiness as measured by standardized tests was at 28 percent, while only half of Northside high school students – and only 36 percent of black students – graduated from high school within four years.


Northside Achievement Zone (NAZ) was formed in 2010 as an outgrowth of the PEACE Foundation, an organization committed to ending intergenerational poverty in North Minneapolis.1 After winning a federal Promise Neighborhood implementation grant in 2012, NAZ was able to significantly expand both its services and its scope, partnering with many local non-profits and increasing its prior goal of serving approximately 150 students to 2500 by the end of 2016. Inspired by the Harlem Children’s Zone, the program’s three main goals are: engaging parents to strengthen their ability to support their children’s achievement, improving schools and the education experience through a continuum of services, and providing whole family wrap-around support to stabilize families and households and remove barriers to learning.2

“Minnesota is the land of 10,000 lakes and 10,000 gaps… In North Minneapolis, specifically in the Northside Achievement Zone, the gaps are especially egregious—unemployment, housing, incarceration, education. But with our work, over time, we believe we can narrow many of them.” – Sondra Samuels, NAZ President & CEO

Strategy for Change

The ultimate goal of the Northside Achievement Zone is to end intergenerational poverty in North Minneapolis by creating a continuous cradle-to-college network of support for participating students and their families. As part of this process, NAZ works with a team of leaders, community partners, and dedicated staff to reach its goals. There are three critical elements of this strategy: 1) Families are the unit of change; 2) NAZ can surround each family with all the supports available; and 3) The combination of high-touch and high-tech gives NAZ an advantage over other strategies.


The NAZ leadership structure is informed and led by key community members, as part of its strategy to evolve based on community leads and to cultivate community leaders to sustain the effort.

  • The organization is led by CEO Sondra Samuels, who has held that position since before NAZ became a Promise Neighborhood.
  • A 20-member Board of Directors comprised of local community, business, and political leaders helps to guide the direction of NAZ.
  • Family leadership comes from the Parent Advisory Board, which is made up of a core group of Northside Achievement Zone parents who have taken initiative and demonstrated leadership in the program.3
  • The Strategic Leadership Team sits at the center of and coordinates the work of NAZ’s Anchor Partners. Each of the eight Action Teams is led jointly by two organizational chairs, and most of the teams have NAZ staff that are co-located at their site. The eight teams work in the areas of: early childhood, K-12 schools, K-8 expanded learning, high school expanded learning, college, career & finance, housing, and health (behavioral and physical).4
  • The Impact Committee, which is made up largely of Board members and key community stakeholders, helps NAZ to review the impact of programs, monitors data, and works with Wilder, the external evaluation team, on updates.


Northside Achievement Zone’s direct service arm is comprised of a team of Connectors who meet regularly with families to identify their needs and connect them to appropriate services, and of Navigators, trained social workers who provide more specific help and services.

  • Connectors: Twenty “Connectors,” community members who are trained by NAZ as family coaches, meet regularly with families to help set and track progress on those families’ long term goals. Connectors also provide information about parenting and child development from NAZ training or based on their own experiences, connect families to NAZ’s services and partner organizations, and monitor children’s social and emotional competence in order to identify potential issues early and connect children to appropriate support when necessary. Each family is assigned a single Connector, with whom it will work for the duration of its involvement with NAZ.
    • Connectors serve an average of 27 families each, with a goal of reaching 40. Eighty-four percent of NAZ families are considered to be active participants in the program.5
    • A key strength of Connectors is their strong ties to the community: 83% of Connectors live or have lived within the Zone (90% identify as “Northsiders”), and 30% come from families that participate in NAZ.6
  • Navigators: A second key group of NAZ employees whose primary duties involve support for students and families, “Navigators” help families reach goals in specific areas, and many work onsite in schools or at NAZ’s partner organizations. Navigators must possess a Bachelor’s Degree in social work, human services, or another related field.
    • When families join NAZ, they complete a family achievement plan with goals in a range of areas.7 Navigators use these plans to help families move toward and monitor progress.
    • NAZ Navigators specialize in one of five areas: Early childhood, academics, housing, career and finance, or behavioral health.
    • Each of NAZ’s anchor schools houses at least one Navigator and one Connecter.


  • Northside Achievement Zone has 44 core partners, with whom it works closely. These “anchor” partners include ten public, charter, and parochial K-12 schools, twelve early childhood programs, as well as expanded learning (before- and after-school and summer) and mentoring programs, health organizations, housing organizations, and career and finance organizations.8
  • NAZ also works closely with Wilder Research, which provides external program evaluation, and with the University of Minnesota’s Center for Early Education and Development (CEED), which partners with NAZ in an advisory capacity and has helped the initiative to design its internal evaluation systems.9

Comprehensive Services

The NAZ model is grounded in participating families’ development of Family Achievement Plans, which set goals across multiple areas and are used to connect families to needed partners and other sources of support so that they can progress toward those goals. The initiative’s continuum of support – which works on both the education and family support tracks – thus encompasses programs that run from prenatal through college.

Early Childhood Services for parents and children

  • NAZ provides Family Academy classes for children age 0-5 and elementary students. These classes are designed to provide parents with key tools to support their children’s learning and make progress toward Family Achievement Plan goals. As is true of other NAZ services, the Family Academy curriculum is shaped by, and relevant to, parents’ own experiences and needs. Classes, which enroll a maximum of 15 parents and vary from 8-12 weeks in length, include:
    • Foundations Class, which is geared toward parent empowerment
    • College Bound Babies, for parents of children from birth to age 3, aims to foster early literacy, numeracy, and positive discipline skills. The class also provides children with developmental screenings.
    • Ready to Succeed, for families with 4-5-year-old children, helps parents prepare children for kindergarten.
    • College-Bound Scholars helps parents navigate their children’s path toward college
  • Race to the Top Early Learning Challenge Grant funds provide scholarships for students to attend high- quality 3- and 4-tier early childhood centers.10

At home, we’ve started playing learning games whenever we can. I learned how to use praise to encourage behavior and I can’t believe how effective it is! -Family Academy Parents11

School Enrichment

  • Anchor Schools: There is at least one Connector and one Navigator present at each of the ten Anchor schools that partner with NAZ.
  • Mentor Program: NAZ partners with Big Brothers Big Sisters to connect children with mentors.
  • College Prep and Completion: The College Prep Action team is chaired jointly by the Minneapolis Community and Technical College and the University of Minnesota Research and Outreach Center. In February 2015, the team developed a comprehensive plan that identifies “essential active ingredients” and “necessary conditions” for college readiness and success and monitors their dosage/the frequency with which they occur. For example, with respect to early access, one essential active ingredient is “Anchor Partners have a site-based mentoring program to mentor NAZ middle and high school Scholars with current undergraduates.”12 The two-to-four year transition includes the importance of “scholars receiv[ing] individual advising to create long-term pathway to four-year institution.”

“We’re helping our scholars to be academically prepared for college—and for colleges to be prepared for them. We want the pipeline that starts at birth to extend through college. Any of our kids accepted into college should have a team of support, from mentoring and course advice, to professors who use cultural competency in both what and how they teach.” -Jaimee Bohning, NAZ Education Director

Expanded Learning Opportunities

  • Northside Achievement Zone connects students with 12 after-school and summer partner programs, including Big Brothers and Big Sisters of the Greater Twin Cities, Plymouth Christian Youth Center, Project Success, and YMCA to offer programs at seven partner sites.
  • Through these programs, students receive academic and college preparatory help, mentorship, and arts education. For example, one summer program was held at a local community college, in order to foster dual goals of improving academic performance and increasing access to and familiarity with post-secondary education options.
  • In 2014, Teach For America formed a partnership with the University of Minnesota to create a summer program that served 200 NAZ students13
  • Also in 2014, NAZ won a grant from the Robert Wood Foundation, which allowed the initiative to expand its Expanded Learning services to middle school students.14
  • NAZ CEO Sondra Samuels estimates that, among those expanded learning programs that are openly available, about half of participants are NAZ scholars, while half are not.


  • Behavioral and Health Navigators are licensed social workers who support parents’ and students health issues and work to prevent crises from arising where possible.
  • A collaboration between NAZ and local health providers is currently in planning stages.

Family supports

  • NAZ Connect: NAZ connect is an online achievement planning and data collection system that families to create sets of goals, called Achievement Plans. The goals are tracked online and monitored with the support of the family’s Connector.15
  • Parent Services: Career & Finance Navigators provide one-to-one support for parents to provide information and direct them towards appropriate services in three areas: employment, finance, and adult education
  • Housing: After three months of participation in NAZ, families are connected with a Housing Navigator, who will support them with the aim of connecting families to stable and affordable housing.

“Before we would have housing doing their thing over there in North Minneapolis, behavior health doing their thing, after school doing their thing, the schools doing their thing, but families and children don’t come in pieces.” -NAZ CEO Sondra Samuels16


Northside Achievement Zone was started with and is supported by a mix of public and private funds. In 2015, the total NAZ operating budget was $7.7 million, with 56 percent coming from its Federal Promise Neighborhood Grant, 13 percent from other sources of public funding including Title 1 and Race to the Top, 22 percent from institutional philanthropy, and 9 percent from individual donations.


  • In 2011, NAZ won a $28 million United States Department of Education Promise Neighborhood grant, to be dispersed in five annual allocations of $5.6 million.17 Before becoming a Promise Neighborhood, the pilot project had a $1.1 million annual budget, funded entirely privately, through a mix of foundation money and individual donations.18
  • In 2011, Minnesota was awarded a $45 million Race to the Top Early Learning Challenge Grant funds, which allowed NAZ to provide 127 scholarships for students to attend high-quality early learning centers in the 2012-13 school year, and 156 in the 2013-14 school year.19
  • In 2015, North Minneapolis was designated a federal Promise Zone, making it a priority for future funding and giving the region preference on federal grant applications. Minneapolis Mayor Betsy Hodges wants to use the region’s Promise Zone status to expand existing programs, including the Northside Achievement Zone.20


There are a number of foundations and corporations that have provided long-standing support. For example, General Mills Foundation and Target Corporation each awarded NAZ $3M over the next three years as a leadership investment to support sustainability post federal grant.

Foundational Policies and Practices

Community Involvement Grounds the Work

Northside Achievement Zone is grounded in the belief that the closely intertwined goals of closing achievement gaps, improving family well-being, and enabling community development must be led and sustained by strong community leaders. Its practices are all developed based on that philosophy, from working with parents to set their own Achievement Plan goals and inviting parents to become Advisory Board members to Family Academy curriculum that is relevant to their lives. NAZ holds a monthly roundtable meeting that is open to the public to discuss and analyze practices, progress and accountability. Each meeting focuses on one of NAZ’s “action areas” and is attended by the NAZ CEO, Board or Impact Committee members, two Parent Advisory Board members, a rotation of management team members, and a representative from the action team whose topic is being discussed.21

Systems change and sustainability

In order to realize the goal of ending multi-generational poverty within the Zone and the surrounding area, NAZ is focused on achieving and sustaining population-level results with families and children. Understanding that the key to sustaining results includes but is not limited to replacing financial resources, NAZ and its partners (including parents) are working on going beyond the implementation phase to deepen and expand their work collectively and individually. The entire NAZ collaborative across the Northside community is supported in this endeavor by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, which is funding NAZ participation in its 18-month results based leadership program. This program aims to increase the scope of the NAZ work– ensuring the integration and effectiveness of its solutions; reaching scale– by ensuring that enough families and children are succeeding in the NAZ Ecosystem to have an impact on the entire population; improving funding mechanisms; and using the influence and experience of the partners and parents to change systems and policy. To date, close to 100 NAZ and partner staff have been involved in on-going on-the-ground results training utilizing the solutions, goals and results to date to drive skill-building and deepen the potential for a results based culture to be imbedded throughout the Northside among key stakeholders.

Setting Ambitious Goals to Drive Progress

Understanding that real progress takes time, NAZ has established ambitious 10-year goals similar to those put forth by many of the Promise Neighborhood grantees. The goal is to set benchmarks that enable incremental progress along the way and that motivate NAZ staff, volunteers, and families to reach for bigger gains. Long-term goals include:

  • Increasing kindergarten readiness from 28% to 80%. (Prior to the change in assessments, NAZ children who had scholarships to 3- and 4-star early learning centers were above 80% in reading, versus 73% among those who lacked access to scholarships.)22
  • Reading at grade level by third grade from 16% to 70%23
  • Grade level math proficiency at 8th grade from 29% to 70%
  • Graduation on time, prepared for college from 51% to 80%24

Time-limited competitive federal grants: Benefits and Challenges to Long-Term Sustainability

  • Promise Neighborhood Grants: In the hopes of replicating the success of the Harlem Children’s Zone, the Obama Administration created the federal Promise Neighborhood program in 2010. The program allocates money in the form of competitive grants to non-profits and institutions of higher education to create “a continuum of cradle-to-career solutions” for low-achieving, high poverty school districts. The grants are distributed over the course of 5 years, and are meant to give programs the opportunity to demonstrate their potential for success so that they can attract private investors after the grant runs out.25
  • NAZ has stated that after the Promise Neighborhood Grant runs out, the core initiative will need to maintain an annual budget of $7.6 million order to remain self-sustaining. In order to achieve this, it projects that other public funding must grow by 260 percent, individual donations by 230 percent, and foundation money by 200 percent from 2015 numbers, for a total of $5.6 million in additional funding. NAZ also projects that its partners will require an additional $5.2 million (for a total of $11.6 million) in funding in order to continue providing the same level of services to NAZ families.26
  • Race to the Top Early Learning Challenge: RTT-ELC is a competitive federal grant program initiated in 2011. Grants are awarded to states with the purpose of increasing both the scope and quality of early childhood education, as well as alignment across programs and with the K-12 system, with a particular emphasis on extending access to low-income families who otherwise would not be able to send their children to preschool.27

Race to the Top Early Learning Challenge Fund grants provide roughly $10,000 per child for high-quality pre-k programs. While the state recently appropriated $100 million in scholarship funds for high-risk families to send their children to the highest-quality programs, and worked with NAZ to direct funds to children who would lose ELC funds when that grant ran out, state funds allot only $7,500, so NAZ must develop a strategy to close that funding gap.

  • Promise Zones Initiative: The federal Promise Zone designation is meant to foster economic opportunity through tax incentives, AmeriCorps VISTA members, and preference on future competitive federal grant applications. The initiative was announced in early 2014, and currently 13 regions hold the designation.

Indicators of Progress

Because NAZ is a relatively new initiative, many indicators relate to service provided and/or families reached, rather than to milestones toward outcomes or longer-term goals.

Reaching Kids and Families

  • As of fall 2015, Northside Achievement Zone was serving 870 families with 1870 “scholars,” each of whom is assigned a Connector.28
  • Half of NAZ families meet with their Connector at least once a month, while 87% of families are reported to be working actively with their Connectors. 80% of Connectors have 40 or fewer families. Although best practice in similar service models (e.g., the Nurse-Family Partnership home visiting program) suggests a maximum of no more than 25 families, NAZ believes that its numbers work because families have both different levels of intensity and types of needs.
  • In 2014, Connectors linked 183 scholars to early learning centers, an increase of nearly 50 percent from 125 at the end of 2013, and exceeding the end-of-year target of 150.29
  • 84% of 2014 early childhood scholars completed their checklists (i.e., they were connected to all of the resources and activities that NAZ sees as central to success). 80 percent exceeded their end-of-year goals, up substantially from 66 percent in 2013, and percentages for K-12 students were also up, from 45 percent in 2013 to 69 percent in 2014.
  • Children in NAZ-enrolled families were more likely to have had early childhood screenings in 2015 than in 2010 (78 percent versus 66 percent), and, among other children to have participated in an afterschool activity (82 percent versus 63 percent), and they were twice as likely as those of non-enrolled families to be in center-based child care (28 percent versus 14 percent).30
  • Zone parents were more likely in 2015 than in 2012 to be involved in their children’s schools, to make school and academics and priority, and to be focused on sending their children to college.31


  • Between 2012 and mid-2015, the number of families that NAZ attempted to connect to stable housing grew from 48 to 349, and the number of families who were successfully connected to stable housing increased from 30 to 192.33
  • In 2013, 37 families attained stable rental housing through NAZ, and the average number of moves for these families was reduced by two thirds in just one year: from 1.46 in 2012 to 0.51. Nearly 100 families found stable rental housing in 2014, with their average number of moves dropping greatly, from 1.80 in the previous year to just 0.23.

Northside Achievement Zone is also starting to see some preliminary improvements in student academic outcomes.

Strengthening reading and math skills

NAZ assesses four specific academic benchmarks: students’ readiness for kindergarten,34 their reading level in 3rd grade, their math proficiency/level in 8th grade,35 and their on-time high school graduation at college preparatory level.36

  • In 2013-2014, 49% of NAZ scholars were deemed to be ready for kindergarten, compared to 35% for the entire Zone.37
  • Students participating in NAZ saw an increase in “proficiency” on the MCA, the state exam, from 14 percent (of 44 who were tested) in 2012-2013 to 22 percent (of 69 who were tested) in 2013-2014.38 In addition, scholars who had enrolled in NAZ in 2013 saw larger increases in standardized test scores than those who enrolled in 2014, suggesting that longer participation is associated with higher standardized test scores.
  • Students who attended Northside Achievement Zone’s extended learning summer programs at one or more of NAZ’ partner sites saw average increases on reading test scores between the end of one school year and the beginning of the next, during a period in which scores normally decrease.39
  • Overall, the highest gains from 2013-2014 were between 1st and 2nd grade, while the lowest were between 7th and 8th 40There is not yet enough data to assess progress toward goals for high school students.

We know that this trend – of making more progress in the early grades – mirrors that of other, similar efforts to improve academic outcomes. But keep in mind that a lot of these early numbers come from years in which programs for younger children had been well established, while those targeting older youth were in not yet fully built. While we know that it’s easier to turn around the trajectories of younger kids, we are fully committed to supporting every child in the Zone. -Jaimee Bohning, NAZ Education Director

Public recognition/awards

CEO Sondra Samuels notes the major increase in traction that NAZ has gained, characterizing 2015 as a “whirlwind of exposure, rising visibility, and investment.”

  • In October 2015, the Minnesota Business Partnership awarded NAZ its 2015 Minnesota’s Future Award for efforts to close achievement gaps in North Minneapolis. In partnership with Target and General Mills, the MBP awarded NAZ $6 million. Minnesota Governor Mark Dayton, who spoke at the event, told the nearly 1,000 business, civic, and community leaders present that, “I fault myself for not starting this initiative sooner. I guarantee, however, that it will be a top priority from now on. I ask that you make it one of your top priorities as well. Not only is it the right thing to do, it is also critical to our state’s economic future.”41
  • In March 2015, the Minneapolis Regional Chamber of Commerce recognized NAZ as the 2015 Best Nonprofit.42


Sondra Samuels, [email protected], or visit


1. Leaders of another organization, 500 under 5, along with a broad group of community leaders, built on that original plan/vision to create NAZ, before merging with NAZ in 2010.

2. NAZ History | NAZ Website

3. NAZ Newsletter: Fall 2014 | NAZ Website


5. NAZ Connect Jan 1, 2016.

6. NAZ Internal Evaluation Report: Family Engagement (October 2014)


8. Our Partners | NAZ Website


10. Evaluation of Minnesota’s Race to the Top-Early Learning Challenge: Scholarships and Title I PreK Incentives | NAZ Website

11. NAZ Education Pipeline, NAZ Family Academy.

12. College Success Solution Plan,

13. NAZ Newsletter: Summer 2014 | NAZ Website

14. NAZ Newsletter Spring 2014 | NAZ Website

15. Solutions | NAZ Website

16. Josh Rosenthal, “Minn. Nonprofit Sees Big Return on Investment Gap Investment,” KSTP Eyewitness News. March 20, 2015.

17. I’d note here that HCZ, on which Promise Neighborhoods are modeled, has an annual operating budget in the ballpark of $70 million. Not sure how NAZ compares in size, but it’s helpful to compare and to point to that contrast as part of the challenge they face.

18. Northside Achievement Zone Promise Neighborhood Application

19.  Evaluation of Minnesota’s Race to the Top-Early Learning Challenge Access Strategies: Scholarships and Title I PreK Incentives- Year 2 | NAZ Website. NOTE: High quality is defined as a center ranked with three or four stars in the state’s Quality Rating and Improvement System/QRIS, by Parent Aware.


21. Results NAZ | NAZ Website

22. Due to a change in assessments since NAZ’s inception and the use of scholarships, it is not possible to compare readiness scores across time. Note that these numbers reflect only reading and only for NAZ-enrolled children, while the readiness numbers below are for both reading and math and include non-enrolled families.

23. Reading and math proficiency is measured by Minnesota’s statewide standardized test, called the MCA or Minnesota Comprehensive Exam.

24. Graduation rates across all three NAZ partner high schools are measured by the MN Department of Education.

25. Promise Neighborhoods Program | US Department of Education

26. Northside Achievement Zone Business Plan FY 2015-FY2022

27. Race to the Top Early Learning Challenge | US Department of Education

28. NAZ refers to all individuals enrolled in their program as scholar, regardless of age

29. All data in this section are from NAZ Internal Evaluation Report: Family Engagement (October 2014)

30. Wilder Research, January 2016 Summary of 2015 Community Survey Results.

31. Wilder Research, January 2016 Summary of 2015 Community Survey Results.

32. All data in this section are from NAZ Internal Report: Housing (April 2015)

33. NAZ Data Dashboard 2015.

34. Until 2014, this designation had been based on the Beginning of Kindergarten Assessment (BKA) that was developed and administered by the Minneapolis Public Schools and that included literacy and numeracy skills. Because “proficiency” was pegged to predicted success on the third grade MCA, since 2014 those levels have been in flux. There is no common tests across districts in the state.

35. Grade-level reading and math “proficiency” are defined by the Minnesota Comprehensive Assessment, the standards-based assessment used by the state to measure progress toward the state’s academic standards and that was used to fulfill requirements under the federal No Child Left Behind Act. Due to changes in the standards against which proficiency is measured, as well as changes in the test design and administration, there have been breaks in the trend line in the past few years. Both math and reading are now in their third version, and each new version has been introduced in a way that precludes comparison to previous test results. (from Sondra Samuels email)

36. All following information is from Northside Achievement Zone 2014 Year-End Report unless noted otherwise

37. Readiness measure based on 2013 scores from Beginning Kindergarten Assessment (BKA).

38. Wilder Research, 2014 Northside Achievement Zone Year End Report, Figure 5.

39. 2014 Mid-Year Reading Report

40. 2014 Mid-Year Reading Report

41. Al McFarlane and B.P. Ford, “North Minneapolis: Creating the World’s Best Workforce,” Insight News. October 21, 2015.

42. Josh Rosenthal (2015).