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Franken, Duncan to visit Dayton's Bluff Elementary

Former Dayton's Bluff principal Andrew Collins, left, and current Principal Steven Flucas, right.
MinnPost photo by Beth Hawkins
Former Dayton's Bluff principal Andrew Collins, left, and current Principal Steven Flucas, right.

On Tuesday morning, Sen. Al Franken and U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan are going to spend a chunk of the day at Dayton’s Bluff Elementary on St. Paul’s east side. Ranking though those pols are, they’re not the stars of the show.

Those would be Andrew Collins and Steven Flucas, the school’s former and current principal, respectively, who will be leading a tour and participating in a panel discussion on great school leadership.

The story the two will tell their VIP guests: In 2005, former social-service provider Collins took over Dayton’s Bluff, where the percentage of its impoverished students testing proficient in math and reading was just barely in the double-digits.

Thanks to a serendipitous series of events and a novel partnership with the Wilder Foundation that brought a host of family supports literally into the school building, Collins turned the Titanic.

Exactly one year ago, he handed Flucas the keys — and a student body where 69 percent were reading proficiently and 75 percent succeeding in math — and took up a new post as St. Paul Public Schools’ turnaround czar. Himself the assistant principal during the turnaround of SPPS’ Linwood-Monroe Arts Plus, Flucas was well-positioned to push those numbers higher.

Growing consensus on what it takes
Of everything I’ve written for MinnPost, the nuts-and-bolts story of the school’s transformation remains one of my favorites. There’s nothing like spending a day hearing what works to throw a problem into high relief.

Despite public education’s dismal record, there’s growing consensus among educators on what it will take to close the achievement gap. And there’s a growing body of expertise on techniques that actually do help individual kids make rapid progress. The staff at Dayton’s Bluff is living proof of this.

So why isn’t all of this newfound wisdom more apparent at more struggling schools? Well, between the labor contract provisions, budget constraints, bureaucratic narrow-mindedness, bus schedules, budget constraints, lack of teacher prep time, budget constraints and all-around general “but we’ve always done it that way”-ness, answering that adequately would require a month of Sundays.

So here’s a sadly oversimplified answer: In general, charters do not outperform mainline public schools with struggling kids. But those that do have the advantage of starting from the ground up: selecting an approach, a strong leader who is able to articulate it and a staff that shares it and works toward it as a team.

Since Collins’ teams effected its about-face, school turnaround has become common in urban districts. But it hasn’t been much more effective than any other gap-closing strategy.

Law is due for renewal
Which is where Franken and Duncan come in. The nation’s overarching school reform law, most recently and infamously known as No Child Left Behind, is due for renewal. Democrats both, Duncan has a blueprint, and Franken sits on the Senate committee that will oversee the law’s rewrite.

(Possessed of a different vision, Minnesota’s Rep. John Kline, a Republican, presides over its House counterpart.)

Franken last year introduced legislation aimed at recruiting, equipping and retaining more Collinses and Flucases; the senator plans to reintroduce the bill as a part of NCLB’s renewal. The Dayton’s Bluff visit is an opportunity to read stories to first- and third-graders, and to kick-start discussion.

Afterward, the electeds and the educators will participate in a panel discussion at 12:15 p.m. at the adjacent Dayton’s Bluff Recreation Center Auditorium, 800 Conway St. SPPS Superintendent Valeria Silva is expected to join them; the rest of the lineup is still being solidified.

The general public is welcome, according to Franken’s staff, but space is limited. Anyone interested in attending is encouraged to secure a spot by e-mailing RSVP@franken.senate.gov. Questions for the panelists should be submitted to the same address.

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