Instances of Discovery

Since August 2007 I have been a monthly columnist for the St. Cloud Times. My theme, taken from the mission statement of the Collegeville Institute for Ecumenical and Cultural Research, is “the renewal of human community.” The columns are republished here with permission of the St. Cloud Times.

Column #198. First published in the St. Cloud Times in print January 7, 2023; online January 8

For a columnist whose theme is the renewal of human community, the year 2024 is daunting. In the next several months I will be marshaling words to do what they can – not a lot, to be sure, but not nothing, either – both to forestall the dismantling of community we have and, in face of dire threats, to invigorate its revitalization.

Now, however, I’m glad to reflect on an effort that began more than a decade ago and has proved that when a community’s assets are mobilized and coordinated, renewal happens.

On Nov. 29 I was one of 150 gathered for the annual Report to the Community by United Way of Central Minnesota Partner for Student Success (UWCM-PFSS), on the theme of “Connecting the Dots: Collective Impact for Our Kids and Community.” I have been involved with PFSS since it was founded, in 2011, by my wife, Pat Welter, and then-superintendent of District 742, Bruce Watkins.

At the beginning of the convening we were reminded of PFSS’s mission: “To unite the community to create equitable environments, opportunities, and support so that each child has what is needed to thrive and succeed in school and in life” – equitable environments, opportunities, support – so much more than schools in isolation; each child thriving and succeeding in school and in life – so much wider and deeper than test scores.

In the years since it started, PFSS has become the education program of United Way, has added the Sauk Rapids-Rice and Sartell-St. Stephen School Districts along with St. Cloud Area Schools, and has engaged over 60 partners – nonprofits, businesses, service clubs, state and national government and civic organizations, philanthropic foundations.

The Report to the Community included information about programs for Early Childhood – Equipped for Learning, Birth to 5; Student Success K-8; Career and College Readiness 6-12. Accounts of success included positive self-identity of students in PFSS-fueled Out-of-School-Time (OST) programming at 79 percent vs. the average of 44 percent; and, among community programs like Too Much Talent and Promise Neighborhood, along with other OST initiatives, 125 of 150 participants (83 percent) increased their literacy by at least one level.

A presentation about literacy got my particular attention. It did so in part by its resonance with something written in Jan. 2012, the earliest days of PFSS, by what was called the Outreach Action Team. We are, they said, “focusing on a number of ways to engage parents in this campaign in meaningful ways associated with improving student achievement."

Farhiya Iman, who came to the US in 2001 and moved to St. Cloud in 2003, and who has a master’s degree in social work, is coordinating an innovative and effective literacy program. It takes its bearings from a recognition by the local Somali Youth Network, a PFSS partner, that addressing the literacy needs of adults is critical in supporting the literacy development of 0–5-year-olds. Iman’s brief account of her work – monthly training sessions – was fascinating, and prompted me to arrange, later, an extended conversation with her.

What Iman has understood from her interaction with others, and from her own experience as daughter and mother, is that literacy is not simply a skill, but is an experience, embedded in a community’s life. She surprises the parents by telling them that when they are talking to their children, they are teaching them literacy, whether in Somali or in English. Reading, of course; but shopping, pointing out that “red” applies to strawberries and “green” to apples; cooking; singing songs; playing with rhymes; even if they don’t know the words on the pages of a book, the parents can talk about the pictures. All this is in aid of explaining how the world works, which is foundational to literacy.

The program, funded by a grant from the Otto Bremer Trust, provides monthly meetings called Parent Engagement, which are true interchanges between Iman and the participants. Education is highly prized in the Somali culture (Iman says her late father was adamant about it), so once the parents understand their role in literacy preparation, they devote themselves to it. The program equips them with a toolbox (one component is Hudda Ibrahim’s book, Imrah's First 100 Words: Somali English Bilingual). They come to understand that they have options. And the exponential ripple effect is real and immediate – Somali-Americans instinctively pass the information on to at least five others.

For Iman, this is not just theory. Her experience with her children mirrors what she teaches others. And she knows it’s not just parents teaching children; it’s a whole family system. Her seven-year-old is helping her four-year-old become literate. According to the US Dept. of Education, Minnesota ranks second in literacy in the nation, just behind New Hampshire. PFSS, with Farhiya Iman’s imaginative and skilled work, is doing its part to keep us at the top.