A recent report by the national research group PolicyLink features three maps showing Minnesota's changing demographics over the course of 60 years, with each of our state's 87 counties shaded to indicate the evolution of our diversity.

The 1980 map is a study in homogeneity, with people of color comprising more than 10 percent of the population in only one rural county. The 2010 map shows considerable change, with six metro-area and 18 non-metro counties at 10 percent or more people of color, including several at 20 percent or more. (People of color, as defined in the PolicyLink report, includes American Indians.)

Showing even more dramatic change, the 2040 map projects most rural counties will have more than 10 percent people of color, and more than a dozen counties are projected to have between 20 percent and 50 percent people of color.

That 2040 projection represents a bright future for a Greater Minnesota that can become greater still as it reflects the greater diversity of the world's cultures. We can thrive and compete more effectively in a global economy when we ourselves are worldlier. And in rural Minnesota, once resigned to decline and depopulation, the recent surge in Latino and African immigrant populations has contributed to actual growth (sometimes, even, all the growth) in some counties.

The PolicyLink report highlights Worthington and Willmar, two rural cities that have seen economic growth as a result of their growing immigrant populations. The report also praises promising local efforts to improve workforce training and to support small business development and entrepreneurship, capitalizing on the influx of new talent and energy.

But the report wisely puts extra emphasis on meeting the needs of children, reflecting the growing consensus in Minnesota - shared by experts and business leaders - that our economic future depends on eliminating the education o­­­pportunity gap that exists for low-income students and students of color.

Among more than a dozen policy recommendations for moving Minnesota toward more equitable growth, one stands out: "Minnesota must invest in an education and workforce system spanning from cradle to career that will prepare low-income youth and workers of color for lifelong success.'

Noting the evidence-tested effectiveness of high-quality early childhood education, the authors of the report advise communities to develop local "pipeline approaches that follow children throughout their education."

Most people in rural Minnesota don't need national experts to tell them this common-sense fact. And some towns and regions already are forming broad multi-sector partnerships to work on their birth-to-career pipelines. These partnerships are working in collaborative and comprehensive ways, in and out of schools, focusing on the best evidence and data to find out what's most needed and what's most effective in getting kids all the way to career and college readiness.

A premier example of local leadership includes new "Student Success" partnerships that are germinating in Austin, the Itasca County area, Northfield, Red Wing and St. Cloud. These partnerships have in common a specific theory of change developed by the Strive Together network based in Cincinnati. The principles in this theory are being replicated in other rural Minnesota communities as well, as demonstrated by the progress in Willmar and Worthington, and the trend hopefully will become a statewide movement.

Each of the Strive partnerships relies on a broad and formal collaboration among local schools and colleges, parents and students, nonprofits, businesses, philanthropies, and other community partners. Each partnership is developing a birth-to-career roadmap for their students, with specific goals such as kindergarten readiness or reading proficiency by third grade, and establishing action networks to identify specific interventions to achieve the goals. There is strong emphasis on data and results and multiple measures of academic, social and developmental success, as well as the fostering of personal relationships that often are crucial to unlocking human potential.

Although the Strive model aims to close opportunity gaps for low-income students and students of color, the framework is focused on improving the performance of ALL students. And solid evidence exists that all children will do better when the entire community commits to improving the entire pipeline and sets higher goals for career readiness.

The theme of the PolicyLink report, "Minnesota's Tomorrow: Equity is the Superior Growth Model," is based on an overwhelming consensus among Minnesota economists, philanthropies and business leaders that greater equity will contribute to a healthier society and growing economy.

And this is most assuredly not just a Twin Cities imperative. Reducing economic inequality and eliminating racial disparities will help Minnesota's rural regions grow and compete. And when the whole town gets to work improving and supporting the birth-to-career pathway for their students, everyone in town is bound to do better in the long run.

Dane Smith is the president of Growth & Justice, a research and advocacy organization that develops innovative public policy proposals based on independent research and civic engagement. The organization believes when Minnesota makes smart investments in practical solutions it leads to broader prosperity for all.