A Snapshot of Urban Education

Russ Gregg, Head of School

The below remarks were given by Russ Gregg at The Minneapolis Club on Thursday, May 16 for an event entitled “Faith-Based Schools and the Achievement & Opportunity Gap” highlighting the work of Hope Academy, Risen Christ School, Ascension Catholic School, and Cristo Rey Jesuit High School.

Welcome everyone to a very special evening. My name is Russ Gregg, and I’m one of the founders and the Head of School at Hope Academy, a K-12 academy serving nearly 400 inner-city students at 23rd and Chicago Ave. Twenty-two years ago, my wife and I bought our first home and moved our family into the Phillips neighborhood of South Minneapolis. While we were well aware of the pervasive poverty and the rampant crime and violence we were moving into, we soon came to understand there was an even greater crisis hiding beneath the surface.

The Urban Education Crisis

Right in the heart of the “education state,” our state—the state with the highest ACT scores in the country, there is a dark under-belly. Students of color in Minneapolis are the lowest academic performers of any major city in the entire country. They are dead last! Today only 33% of African-Americans and Latinos, and 22% of Native Americans in our city’s public school system will graduate high school in four years.

Do you know of any business that would tolerate a 70% failure rate? And of the 30% of students of color who do graduate from our public high schools, their average reading level at graduation is only eighth grade.

Minnesota has now been singled out nationally as the state with the largest achievement gap between white students and students of color. We are number one. What this means, is that for students of color in our city, most will achieve less academically than students in states like Mississippi or South Carolina. In the midst of all our prosperity, this enormous gap in achievement is a kind of benign racism, and it is scandalous.

And just when you thought this sad story couldn’t get any worse, we must understand that this crisis is increasing at an increasing rate. City planners estimate that Minneapolis’ population will grow by 65,000 people between now and 2025, and that growth will be almost exclusively among people of color—those currently suffering from the greatest disparities in academic achievement. So, if we don’t take dramatic action, the achievement gap we find totally unacceptable today, will be dramatically bigger in 2025.

 The Cost of Failed Education

The public cost of failed education in our city is just staggering. The Minneapolis Foundation estimates that the failure to graduate students of color at the same rate as white students will cost Minnesota’s economy $1.3 billion a year by 2020. Today, 1 out of every 9 African-American men in our country, between the ages of 20-24, is in prison tonight. And several states have figured out the link. They are building prison capacities based on 3rd grade reading scores. They’ve learned that if you aren’t reading by 3rd grade it greatly increases the likelihood of being incarcerated.

Waiting for Superman. Really?

Two years ago, when filmmakers made a major documentary exposing the crisis of urban education in our country, do you know what title they gave it? They called it, “Waiting for Superman.” Now, except for the spiraling growth of the federal deficit, I’m not aware of any other problem facing our country that’s so urgent and where leaders have felt so hopeless that they’ve started calling upon superheroes for help. When people are “waiting for Superman,” then you know you’ve got a crisis on your hands.

The Heart of the Problem

Many of you must be asking yourselves, why is this particular problem so different to solve? All of us in this room solve problems like this every day. Surely this one can’t be that difficult to fix. Can it? Actually, it is impossible to fix if you don’t understand the true nature of the problem.

In the beginning, I thought I had some ideas about how to solve the crisis of urban education, and some of those ideas were valid. But what I didn’t understand until later was what’s really happening in the urban family today.

Let me tell you a story to illustrate what happens to most inner-city kids. JaShawn was one of the 86.6% of African-American children born in Hennepin County to a single mom. His mother had high hopes for him and brought him to Kindergarten at their neighborhood school. JaShawn had a vocabulary of 500 words compared to a typical suburban Kindergartener who has a vocabulary of over 5000 words.

JaShawn is already way behind his suburban counterparts. In first grade, JaShawn began to learn to read. However there weren’t any books in his home, and his mom never read with him.

In second grade JaShawn began to get home work but there was no one at home to help him. The TV was always on and lots of strange men kept coming in and out of his apartment. Several times these strange men beat up JaShawn’s mom.

JaShawn often had to hide because he was afraid, and he really had a hard time concentrating in class the next day.

By third grade, JaShawn was already a grade and a half behind where he should be. And his teacher didn’t know what to do. Mom’s cell number was always disconnected. And she didn’t ever attend her son’s Parent-Teacher conferences.

By sixth grade, JaShawn found a new family to belong to—the Gangsta Disciples, and he started dressing in the colors of his new family. School was no longer interesting to him. Mom moved three times that year, and JaShawn attended four different schools.

Meanwhile JaShawn’s school spent $12 million to research and implement a new reading curriculum that they hoped would improve reading scores in the district.

What does JaShawn know in sixth grade? While driving in the car with his mentor, he heard a story on the radio about the London Philharmonic. His mentor asked him, “JaShawn, do you know where London is?”

“Don’t know.”


“Never heard of it.”

“Well, what’s the largest city in the United States?”

“Las Vegas? O wait, I think that’s a state.”

By 10th grade JaShawn has dropped out of school. He has been in juvenile detention and fathered a child. He smokes weed most every day and is getting into more serious drug activity. JaShawn’s likely on his way to jail.

Why Widows and Orphans?

Have you ever wondered why God commanded his people to look out for and help the widows and the orphans among us? It must be because God designed every child to need both a mother and a father.

A child without a parent needs to be the special focus of our charity and our efforts to restore the urban family. Any effort to solve the problem of urban education that ignores the family is doomed to failure. Parents are the problem, and parents must become part of the solution.


Tonight you will be hearing from four non-public, faith-based schools, all located in the inner-city of Minneapolis, who are not “waiting for Superman” to solve the crisis of urban education. Instead, our schools have attacked the problem head on, and day after day, we are seeing the same high-poverty, “at-risk” group of students beat all the odds and become successful beyond our wildest dreams.

We believe that community leaders like those of you in this room, people who care deeply about giving equality of opportunity to all our citizens, would want to understand what makes our school’s approach so unique and so successful.