Rybak to focus on achievement gap

Mayor Rybak
Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak delivers his proposed 2014 budget Thursday, Aug. 15, 2013 at the Thrivent Financial for Lutherans auditorium in downtown Minneapolis. (MPR Photo/Jennifer Simonson)
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One of Minnesota's most prominent politicians is leaving politics — at least for now. Ever since R.T. Rybak decided not to seek a fourth term as Minneapolis mayor, he's been asked what he plans to do next. On Tuesday, he announced he'll become the executive director of Generation Next, an advocacy group focused on closing the achievement gap in education.

He'll also teach some courses at the University of Minnesota including one next spring called simply "Mayor 101."

R.T. Rybak spoke with MPR's Morning Edition.

Cathy Wurzer: Yesterday you said that education, specifically closing the achievement gap, is close to your heart. Why is this issue so personal to you?

R.T. Rybak: Partly because I've spent so many hours with the young generation in Minneapolis, and it's been one of the greatest gifts I've ever gotten. I've met people from all over the world, from all these different backgrounds, and to see so many of them doing so well. And also what has made me, quite frankly, heartsick is that some of them are not doing as well. The gaps in our community break on racial lines, economic lines, geographic lines, and when kids don't have the same future, that's a crisis.

Wurzer: You've said one of your biggest regrets as Mayor is not getting involved with schools sooner. Is this an attempt to make up for that?

Rybak: I was busy. I walked into a massive crisis on finances and all sorts of other issues. From the beginning I was engaged in working with young people. The Step Up summer job program we developed put 18,000 kids, half of them from immigrant families, into summer jobs. So I did a lot of work, but for a while I kept my work on the city, the mayor has nothing to do with schools on paper, did a lot with kids, but increasingly I recognized that you have to plunge directly into the schools as well. What I've looked for is to not be spread so thin and take one big issue that mattered, and nothing matters more to me than helping our kids, helping our schools especially to close the achievement gap.

Wurzer: What have you learned as mayor about what makes this problem so difficult to address?

Rybak: If somebody could do one thing to make sure every single kid succeeded, they would have done it already. There are also people in this community who have worked on this issue for years and years, and there are people who have had a lot of success. The issue is one of those, however, that requires an approach from all different levels. It means that much more has to be done with families like what the Northside Achievement Zone is doing with young parents and young kids that is a great start. It says a lot about what has to be done before kids get into schools, it says a lot about how our schools need to be re-thought and classrooms re-thought to respond to different needs and put out kids with 21st century skills. It says we have to value things differently in a new world, like a kid's language skills. We rightfully put a label on kids who are English language learners because they need new skills, but we fail I think to acknowledge some of the kids come into our community and speak four languages. English may not be one of them. So how do we put all that together and say we want everyone succeeding at a very high level. But we also need them trained for a globally confident new world where they can cross cultural barriers.

Wurzer: As you stated, a lot of people have been working on this issue. Why do we need another non-profit in the mix?

Rybak: We don't have a crisis of compassion in this community, we have crisis of alignment. It is so powerful to see people in the trenches who for years have done great work, teachers who have done amazing work in our schools. But what we need to be able to say is that all of these many, many efforts in this community need to say, what do we need to solve here? What are the key measures? We want to make sure, for instance, that every kid masters reading by third grade. At fifth grade their math skills are clear, that they've got a college track, that before they get to school we understand the needs that they have. And with all of this compassion, sometimes we're running a lot of different directions, so to be kind of an air-traffic controller for some of these fantastic acts of compassion that too often are not aligned.

Wurzer: So Generation Next would be kind of a hub?

Rybak: Absolutely, and it already is. Generation Next has not only gotten almost all of the major funders and education leaders at one single table, which is progress, but also has put teams together of people working on early childhood, those working on college and career pipelines for them to compare notes, see what they're doing together and get them moving. So there's already a lot happening. We just have to do it faster with more urgency and with much more collaboration.

Wurzer: Is there a candidate for mayor who you think would do an especially good job working with the Minneapolis schools?

Rybak: I think many of the candidates have done a lot of work. Council member Don Samuels has been on this issue in a very aggressive way for many years, but I think many of them have talked about this, and I'm extremely pleased that during the campaign education has risen to the top. And these candidates have been asked questions I was never asked, and that's a good thing, and I think they're responding well.

Wurzer: Do you plan to endorse anyone specifically for mayor or are you staying away from that because you'll have to work with one of them in this particular position?

Rybak: Separate from this, it's really clear to me right now in the week before the election, the candidates should make their closing arguments to the people. I should keep my mouth shut, unless I see some big negative attack over the weekend. Right now this has been the most constructive, positive mayoral campaign we've seen in decades, and that's a very good thing. If it stays that way, I should keep my mouth shut and let everybody make up their own mind.

Wurzer: Are we going to see you in politics again?

Rybak: I'm going to be vice chair of the Democratic National Committee until 2016, so I'll be doing political work, there's no doubt about it. I don't rule out politics by any stretch, but right now I really love the idea that I can do what the people have done in this community for a long time and not need a title in front of your name to do good things for the community. I've never been about politics, I've been about activism and doing things. Politics has been a great way to express what I think needs to be done in this community, but it's not the only one. So I don't rule it out but I'm certainly not charting that right now.