Myers-Wilkins Community School Collaborative

What if we could eliminate the Opportunity Gap in Duluth, MN by building & strengthening community?

Photo of Jennifer Jubenville
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Founding Story: Share a story about a key experience or spark that helps the network understand why this project got started or a story about how you became inspired about the potential for this project to succeed.

Duluth, MN, a seaport city at the tip of Lake Superior, population of 86,128 according to the 2013 US Census, is a major tourist destination, yet there are disparities in poverty, employment, housing, & health outcomes. The East & Central Hillside neighborhoods contain the city's highest levels of diversity, rental properties, & concentrated poverty. In 1998 US News and World Report labeled the area “the largest white ghetto.” At the time the local school lacked the resources to meet the needs of children living in poverty; students were underachieving, attendance was poor, behavioral issues were rampant, & Out-of-School-Time programming was minimal. At the same time, a door-to-door survey was conducted to learn what families’ needs were. 78% of respondents reported a need for quality after-school & summer programs for children & youth. As a result, a small group of people were inspired to work toward a common vision for the neighborhood. The Myers-Wilkins Community School Collaborative was born. Early on the Collaborative worked to create a community space at school, develop family nights, & find funding for programming. Those efforts led to developing an organizational structure, drafting a strategic plan, & obtaining 501(c)3 status. A grant from the Duluth Police started the Hillside Youth Theatre Summer Program, an annual program. A Parent Advisory Council was formed to give parents a voice. The Collaborative worked to establish a Full Service Community School.

Which categories describe you? (the answer will not be public)

  • Asian (for example: Chinese, Filipino, Indian, Vietnamese, Korean, Japanese, Pakistani)
  • Black or African American (for example: African American, Jamaican, Haitian, Nigerian, Ethiopian, Somalian)
  • Hispanic, Latinx, or Spanish origin (for example: Mexican, Puerto Rican, Cuba, Salvadoran, Dominican, Colombian)
  • Native American or Alaska Native (for example: Navajo Nation, Blackfeet Tribe, Mayan, Aztec, Native Village of Barrow Inupial Traditional Government, Nome Eskimo Community)
  • White (for example: German, Irish, English, Italian, Polish, French, Caucasian)

If you chose to self-identify your race, ethnicity, or origin, please share here: (the answer will not be public)

The answers selected pertain to the families we serve. My (the author) race is White.


Location: Where is your organization headquartered? [State]

  • Minnesota

Location: Where is your organization headquartered? [City]


Location: Where is your project primarily creating impact? [State]

  • Minnesota

Location: Where is your project primarily creating impact? [City]


Problem: What problem is this project trying to address?

The National Opportunity to Learn Campaign published “Opportunity Gap: Closing Opportunity Gaps in Education is the only way to close Achievement Gaps,” and defined the Opportunity Gap as “the disparity in access to quality schools & the resources needed for academic success, such as early childhood education, highly prepared & effective teachers, college preparatory curricula, & equitable instructional resources.” The reality is that the Opportunity Gap exists not just in education in the East & Central Hillside Neighborhoods, but all aspects of life. St. Louis County HHS & the MN DOH documented the impact of chronic stress on physical & mental health. Chronic stress caused by poverty, racism, abuse, & homelessness impacts life expectancy. Large health disparities exist across Duluth. The lowest projected life expectancy was found in zip codes around the school.

There is a noticeable Opportunity Gap in Duluth, Minnesota. The residents in the East & Central Hillside Neighborhoods live an average of 11 years less than those in other parts of the city. The Myers-Wilkins Community School Collaborative is focused on providing opportunities and resources for children and families in the neighborhood around Myers-Wilkins School. By providing out of school time programs, including academic tutoring and mentoring, enrichment activities, summer programs, access to a Community Health Worker in the school building, and family night opportunities the neighborhood is building a strong and vibrant community. 

Is your model focused on any of the following traditionally underserved communities?

  • Communities of color
  • Children who are differently abled
  • Low-income communities

Does your model work within any of the following sectors?

  • Child and Family Services
  • Community Development and Empowerment
  • Education

Year Founded


Project Stage

  • Established (the solution has passed the previous stages, and has demonstrated success)

Example: Walk the network through a specific example of what happens when a person or group engages with your solution.

Students can be referred to participate in OST programs in a variety of ways. Often referrals come from the classroom teacher, but parents also seek out support for their student beyond the school day. Referrals can also come from other staff. The first step is to complete a registration form. If parents need assistance filling out the registratiform a Family Liaison is available for help. Family Liaisons meet with parents & determine the student’s needs for participating. Parents who feel heard feel connected to the school & understand that the Collaborative is a safe place for their child to succeed. The Family Liaison also meets regularly with the child’s classroom teacher(s) to develop & monitor a Continuous Learning Plan (CLP).

Impact: What was the impact of your work last year? Please also describe the projected future impact for the coming years.

As a result of our efforts MWCSC serves 350+ unduplicated children during the school year and 120+ children (some of whom attend school-year programming) during the summer. Another 130 children (some overlap with the 350 unduplicated) participate in programs through our partner organizations. MWCSC hosts 6-8 family nights every year. A family night might be a presentation about Service Learning projects or a culturally specific activity such as the “Steps to the Future Powwow and Career Fair.” Family nights involve students, staff, OST teachers, community volunteers, college students, and representatives of cultural organizations. Additionally, research has shown that parents who engage with their children in family night activities are more likely to feel comfortable in the school environment and more connected to their child’s education.

Organization Type

  • nonprofit/NGO/citizen sector

Annual Budget

  • $250k - $500k

Financial Sustainability Plan: What is your solution’s plan to ensure financial sustainability?

The presence of a recently hired Development Coordinator will allow for the creation of a concrete fundraising plan to help promote & advance the mission. A marketing plan is being developed to help MWCSC promote themselves, demonstrate the value provided, and give accountability. Increased visibility through marketing will likely lead to an increase in donations & in-kind support which will allow expanded programming.

Unique Value Proposition: How else is this problem being addressed? Are there other organizations working in the same field, and how does your project differ from these other approaches?

Myers-Wilkins Community School Collaborative is an innovative project because it works with all residents of the neighborhood, regadless of a family's ability to pay for services. We provide academic tutoring and mentoring, enrichment activities, service learning, family nights, parental support, and a theatre camp - without any costs incurred to the participants. Because our program is based in the school we have the full partnership of the school staff, and we have access to families who are already bringing their children to school. We are not "one more place" where families have to go.

Reflect on the Field and its Future: Stepping outside of your project, what do you see as the most important or promising shifts that can advance children’s wellbeing?

It's no secret that there is a widening gap between the "haves" and the "have nots" in this country. Children born in to poverty start Kindergarten behind their middle class peers in terms of school readiness and as early as first grade indicators of failure to graduate are already seen. A lot of people talk about solutions, but the truth is if we don't intervene at the local, community, early childhood point, things will never change. Once a child starts school a noticeable Opportunity Gap exists. By leveling the playing field & exposing children to opportunities we give them a chance.

Source: How did you hear about the Children’s Wellbeing Challenge? (the answer will not be public)

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1 comment

Join the conversation:

Photo of Maud Schaafsma

This is a culturally rich program with a number of interventions that are accessible to children in low-income families. These after-school and summer activities are exactly what children need to enrich their lives and support them through the summer slump when children can fall behind in literacy learning. You might want to look at the Children's Defense Fund's summer literacy program "Freedom School" to actually shape a reading enrichment program for children in K-5th grade.  

I like the connection you make to long-term health outcomes.  You could also include higher costs of medical care for adults with chronic illnesses, caused by childhood exposure to poverty, trauma and toxic levels of stress.  If you are not familiar with Robert Anda's studies of early child adversities (ACEs Study) you need to learn about this study and integrate it into your argument about why your cultural and child care programs are so important.  There is also considerable knowledge about how neurological impacts of toxic stress change the networks in children's brains and contribute to disruptive emotions and behavior that interfere with learning. This is now fundamental information that providers need to include in competitive proposals for funding. You can learn about toxic stress, poverty and the architecture of a child's brain from working papers by Jack Shonkoff at the Harvard Center on the Developing Child ( You may also be interested in Paul Toughs' new book Helping Children Succeed (2016). Find how you uniquely contribute to the process of healing developmental trauma. 
 ACEs Study: