In education circles it’s known as the achievement gap: the noted disparity in academic performance between groups of students, especially groups defined by race/ethnicity and socioeconomic status. Teachers, school boards, non-profits and politicians have been and continue to look for solutions to try to tackle this complex issue. In the state of Minnesota, one of the leaders of this fight is Gustavus alumnus Daniel Sellers ’06.
Educated in the Minneapolis Public School District and a graduate of Minneapolis South High School, Sellers came to Gustavus and earned his bachelor’s degree in sociology and anthropology. After a successful five-year stint with Teach For America, Sellers was hired as the Executive Director of MinnCan – an independent education reform nonprofit that aims to change state policy to transform the way we educate Minnesota’s children so that all students regardless of race, ethnicity or socioeconomic status have access to great public schools.
It’s a big job, but it’s one that Sellers is up for as evidenced by his relatively short yet impressive professional career since graduating from Gustavus.
A Busy Gustie
Sellers chose Gustavus because he said “it just felt right.” When he arrived, he didn’t waste any time immersing himself in all the college had to offer. He was a Gustie Greeter, a Curriculum II student, became involved in the Student Activities Office, played concerts in the Courtyard Café, competed in intramural athletics and religiously attended basketball and soccer games as a Gustie Superfan.
“I remember being incredibly busy and through it all I built lifelong friends who share my values and passion for living,” Sellers said.
In the classroom, Sellers developed relationships with professors like Rich Hilbert (Sociology and Anthropology), Florence Amamoto (English), and Alisa Rosenthal (Political Science), who would mentor him and shape his career path.
“I’ve never experienced anything quite like Rich Hilbert’s classes. He’s an engaging and hilarious genius who, simply put, helped me understand how the world works. I’ve never looked at the world the same way since taking Professor Hilbert’s courses,” Sellers said. “I’ve stayed in touch with Florence and Alisa since graduating and both have been amazing cheerleaders and mentors for me. Florence challenged me to listen and Alisa challenged me to lead. Florence taught me humility while Alisa taught me how to channel my passion into productive results.”
Sellers might have been a natural born leader, but he points to two experiences in particular that have helped him achieve such an influential position of leadership at such a young age.
“Gustavus prepared me for a life of service,” Sellers said. “Most importantly, my Curriculum II senior seminar with Florence Amamoto and my time spent exploring my future in the Center for Vocational Reflection helped prepare me to lead. I left Gustavus with strong values, belief in myself as a leader, and prepared to serve others.”
From GAC to NC
After graduating from Gustavus, Sellers’ appointment through Teach for America took him to Warren County in the rural northeastern area of North Carolina. Once a thriving region, the decline of textile production and other manufacturing in the area led to widespread unemployment and impoverishment.
As a result, there are huge disparities in educational opportunities for kids in the region. Sellers taught sixth grade math at Warren County Middle School and in his first year was able to increase the number of students passing the state standardized math exam from 40 to 75 percent. The following year, he led 97 percent of his students to pass, outperforming average students from non-low-income schools in North Carolina and essentially eliminating the achievement gap between his students and their peers in wealthier communities. For Sellers, the experience forever changed him.
“First, I gained an enormous amount of humility. Teaching is incredibly hard and yet the challenges I faced paled in comparison to what my students overcame almost every day. I ended most days inspired by my students in ways that are difficult to describe,” he said. “Second, I learned that every child can be successful regardless of their background or economic status. The experience was truly transformational: setting a goal that many colleagues called foolish and far too ambitious; holding incredibly high expectations for students in spite of all the challenges they face; building a community of learning and success; and watching as students reached academic heights that even they thought were impossible.”
Others took notice of the results Sellers was able to deliver. He was named a finalist for the 2008 Sue Lehmann Excellence in Teaching Award and was then named Founding Executive Director of Teach For America – Twin Cities by Teach For America’s Founder and CEO Wendy Kopp. After establishing the foundation for the region in 2008, the first cohort of 40 teachers began in Twin Cities classrooms in 2009. The organization then grew to 100 teachers by 2011.
A Leader for Change
Now that he has settled into his role at MinnCan, Sellers is confronted with the fact that Minnesota has some of the largest academic achievement gaps in the country between low-income, minority students, and their wealthier and white peers. Graduation rates for Native American, Latino, and Black students in the state are among the worst in the country.
“Black and Latino students in the deep south outperform their peers in Minnesota on apples-to-apples exams,” Sellers said. “This is an absolute crisis, and solving it will be the civil rights movement of our generation. Every Minnesotan should be outraged.”
Sellers says that MinnCAN creates original research reports and policy briefs that provide the in-depth analysis of public education that is the foundation for its policy recommendations. MinnCan also tries to communicate and engage with every-day Minnesotans via print media, e-mail, social media, and on-the-ground community organizing to help them become informed citizens with a commitment to common sense education reform. The non-profit also attempts to empower citizen advocates to push for smart changes to continue to strengthen public schools.
MinnCan was instrumental in urging Minnesota legislators to pass alternative teacher certification, which they did in March of 2011. The group’s wish list for policy reform includes rewarding effective teachers, ending seniority-based layoffs, an improved principal evaluation system, the expansion of schools that show results, and the closure of persistently low-performing schools.
Not all education experts agree with MinnCan’s proposed policy reforms, most notably Education Minnesota, the union that represents more than 70,000 educators in the state. Sellers, however, believes that the two groups can find some common ground and work together.
“Our first goal is to create space for honest conversations about what’s working and how we can improve public schools. Far too much of the discourse around public education has become polarizing and divisive,” he said. “We seek to bring diverse perspectives to the table so we can work together to create meaningful positive improvements for students.”
Sellers also says that education leaders need to agree that doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result won’t work.
“As painful as change can be, the crisis is so urgent that we must enact swift policy changes to ensure we don’t lose another generation of low-income kids of color,” he said. “We also can agree that there is no silver bullet solution to this issue and there isn’t a single silver scapegoat to blame either. We have to empower great leaders to lead and then we must give them the flexibility for them to do their job which is to create great schools to meet the needs of all of their students.”
If you know Sellers, catching him at home or sitting down with him for a cup of coffee might be difficult. He will be busy bringing the voice of kids and families to the Capitol, working with a politically diverse board of community leaders, meeting with elected officials on a regular basis, talking with educators and parents to understand their perspective, and raising money for this incredibly worthy cause.
“In my senior thesis in Florence Amamoto’s class, I wrote that in the future I wanted to ‘jump out of bed every day, excited to go work, avoiding the snooze button at all costs,’” Sellers said. “I feel incredibly blessed and lucky that wish has come true – I get to do what I love every day. I challenge myself to get better at what I do, work long hours, and am driven by an unwavering belief that every child can be successful if we give them the opportunities they deserve.”