Way to Grow
By Lauren Cutshal
Way to Grow
After 2020’s disruptions in education, Maya and Maki — second grade students and twins — were each struggling to read and comprehend material for their grade level. That changed when the family made a meaningful connection with someone who would become a key part of their support system: their Family Educator Amanda. As Amanda spent time with Maya and Maki, she noticed both the differences in the twins’ learning styles and interests as well as their strengths when collaborating together. Both Maya and Maki loved games and competition but Maya loved learning through art and play while Maki learned best through hands-on real life application and worked really hard outside of home visits to keep learning concepts. Amanda helped them through individualized literacy games, creative projects, and reading practice. By the end of their third grade year, both Maya and Maki were reading at grade level.
The catalyst for the twins’ new confidence in learning is the Twin Cities based organization, Way to Grow, where Amanda is a Family Educator. As it strives to eliminate barriers to early education, Way to Grow offers connections, programming, and resources to families in need.
Despite its strong education system, Minnesota has the third largest opportunity gap in educational attainment between white students and students of color in the country. Through one-on-one family educators and meaningful creative connection with parents, Way to Grow works hard to close that opportunity gap and set children up for success. In 2022, 98% Way to Grow’s pre-k learners entered kindergarten on track!
Over the short term, Way to Grow works to offer parents more tools to impact their children’s education — and this goal feeds right into the program’s long term vision. Way to Grow uses a holistic approach to change the trajectory of parent’s lives — which in turn benefits children, families, and communities. “We see our parents go back to school, get their education and increase their earning potential,” says CEO Carolyn Smallwood. “In turn, their children graduate from high school, go on to college or technical school, and are able to give back.”
“Parents really are their child’s first teacher,” says Patricia Hayes, Program Manager for Way to Grow. “We build parents up and help them know that they have a voice, that they can be the advocate for their child’s education.”
While Way to Grow’s Great by Eight program is at the heart of its mission to prepare children for their education, the organization also supports families by connecting them to resources in the areas of housing, employment, and health services.
“Anyone can go into someone’s home and show up with a book. But it also has to be heartfelt. We accept families where they’re at; we ask how we can help,” Patricia says. Before families can focus on education, they may need support in meeting other needs, like finding stable housing or employment. The organization helped make over 1,300 resource referrals and served 1,850 people in their network in 2022.
Way to Grow focuses on the importance of the pivotal early years for children and their education by offering support in both early education and elementary school. And in 2022, 81 percent of students in Way to Grow’s kindergarten through third grade programs demonstrated growth in reading level assessments.
By focusing on a language-to-language approach, Way to Grow works to build trust between parents and Family Educators. For example, Spanish speaking families are given the opportunity to pair with a Spanish speaking Family Educator. Way to Grow makes a point to offer culture-to-culture connections too, connecting families to staff and well as books, and materials that all relate to that family’s culture.
“Parents really are their child’s first teacher.”
“It’s very intimate to have someone come into your personal space and share your life with them,” says Melissa Meyer, Director of Development. “But because we’re making that language-to-language or culture-to-culture connection, deep trust is built.”
A large part of this sense of trust comes from Way to Grow’s ability to follow their programming over time and see its short- and long-term impacts. Through the Constellation Fund’s initiatives, such as Beyond Dollars and the Impact Report, Way to Grow is able to gain insight into the progress and success of their programs.
For example, in 2022, 98 percent of children scheduled to enter kindergarten tested kindergarten-ready — a metric that Way to Grow can use in sharing their story with potential families, and also with prospective investors.
“Having these types of metrics helps communicate our programming impact,” says Melissa.
Not only are these metrics important from an analytic and programming standpoint, but it’s meaningful to the Family Educators and staff who are involved in the hands-on work as well.
“We take this data, along with parent feedback, and we adjust accordingly,” says Carolyn. “We are an ever-learning organization, and we use this information to make our organization better.”
“Our staff do this work day in and day out, and I am not sure they all realized, collectively, what their individual impact was doing for the community,” says Melissa. The Impact Report from Constellation helped staff see the bigger picture impact of their work and how it improves communities.
“Now we can say, this is the work that you’re doing, and this is the long term economic impact,” Melissa says. “In that moment, we see a lightbulb go off and they stand up a little straighter; they feel so proud of their work. This type of information really helps validate our work in a new way.”
With assistance from Constellation, Way to Grow learned that for every dollar invested in their organization, over $9.27 of impact is generated in the community toward reducing poverty.
“We are working with families that will contribute and support the communities in which they live,” says Carolyn. “Making homes into stable, learning environments impacts not only the entire family, but also changes communities and school systems.”
Through Way to Grow’s programs, families are more easily able to navigate systems and advocate for their children’s education. By helping families build a network of support for their children, and in turn, find long term stability, communities are strengthened.
“We’re giving them hope, and giving them confidence and resources,” Carolyn says. “Family by family, we are changing communities as we go along.”