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Autonomous schools gain ground in Minneapolis and across the nation

Four Minneapolis pilot schools rolled out personalized Community Partnership Schools plans at the start of this school year. 

These four schools make up the first cohort of Community Partnership Schools in the Minneapolis Public Schools district. Clockwise from top left they are: Ramsey Middle School, Folwell Performing Arts Magnet, Nellie Stone Johnson Community School and Bancroft Elementary.
MinnPost photos by Erin Hinrichs

As part of Acceleration 2020, the Minneapolis Public Schools’ strategic plan adopted in 2014, the district made a commitment to focusing on “schools as the unit of change.”

Under this framework, decision-making should originate at the school level, since on-site educators and parents are best attuned to the needs of their students.

This approach has been gaining traction in other major urban district in places like Los Angeles, Cleveland, Boston and Denver.

But those spearheading the shift in Minneapolis have been fairly mum about the progress of the whole endeavour up to this point. It’s a pretty drastic departure from the status quo, up against many layers of bureaucratic resistance — some intentional, some simply the result of the learning curve involved.

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Consider this: The district is currently serving more than 35,000 students across more than 70 schools. As a matter of efficiency, district staff housed at the Davis Center on West Broadway have long had a top-down approach to everything from curriculum to scheduling to professional development. Given the stagnant achievement gap, however, stakeholders have grown aware of the disconnect between the perceived needs at the district level and on-the-ground realities at some of its lowest-performing schools.

Hence, the recent adoption of the Community Partnership Schools (CPS) model, which allows designated schools autonomy to pick and choose which district services they use and which they modify or seek elsewhere, within the agreed upon parameters.

Four pillars of autonomy

This autonomous school model — which goes by a variety of names in different states — often conjures comparisons to charter schools. But, to be clear, Community Partnership Schools haven’t shed their affiliation with the district. Rather, they’ve opted out of prescriptive services in favor of a tweak here and there — to scheduling, curriculum, performance measures, and more — that they believe will help improve student outcomes.

None of the agreed-upon freedoms exempt designated schools from following state and federal education standards, but the list of possibilities is fairly extensive. It can be broken down into four pillars of autonomy concerning curriculum and assessment, time, staffing governance and budget.

“If we’re going to hold schools accountable for getting different outcomes for students, then they really need to have maximum control over their resources,” the district’s CPS liaison, Betsy Ohrn, said. “I think of those four buckets as the key areas they can have control over.”

Taking the lead, four pilot schools rolled out personalized CPS plans at the start of this school year. While it’s too early to assert whether the autonomies they’ve requested and implemented are positively impacting student test scores, all four sites report making strides in the right direction, especially in the realm of teacher empowerment. And the upcoming selection of a second cohort suggests support for the new model persists.

“The best way for us to really improve instruction, improve student performance, is to empower our teachers and our principals,” Interim Superintendent Michael Goar said. “We want to give a greater level of autonomy to our schools, be much more service-minded, less of a bureaucratic organization. We’re not there yet; it’s still [a work] in progress.”

‘Turning our schools around’

Local discussion about Community Partnership Schools began during former Superintendent Bernadeia Johnson’s tenure. In its first iteration, unveiled in a plan Johnson dubbed SHIFT, the CPS model ran up against strong opposition from the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers (MFT).

After bringing the concept to the negotiating table, the district and MFT entered into a memorandum of agreement allowing Goar to move forward with the new initiative.

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“It’s important that we have that kind of voice and control in our schools so that we can be more successful with our students,” MFT President Lynn Nordgren said. “There’s a foundation piece, almost like a security blanket, where their contract is still in place. That doesn’t get thrown out the door, which could create a lot of tension for people. We want people to not have any fears about this … as they venture out to be innovative, to be change agents.”

While the two entities agree that teacher empowerment is critical to improving teaching and student outcomes, Goar acknowledges growing momentum behind the CPS model is still vulnerable to the skepticism of nonbelievers. If the push for granting schools greater autonomy has any real chance of taking hold, Goar says, the next superintendent approved by the board will need to continue to champion the model.

“As a heart of our strategic plan, we need to keep doing what we’re doing and not abandon it,” Goar said. “I hope the next superintendent believes as much as we do that this is a critical part of turning our schools around.”

In a recent op-ed in the Star Tribune, board member Carla Bates also voiced concern that Community Partnership Schools are up against internal resistance because the school board remains divided over the shift to decentralize control.

In an added dynamic, the effort to create more autonomous district schools coincides with the district’s move away from authorizing charter schools. Turning its attention to four pilot CPS sites — two elementary schools, Nellie Stone Johnson and Bancroft, the K-8 Folwell Performing Arts Magnet and Ramsey Middle School — the district is focusing on granting flexibilities in-house.

“We need to keep transforming our traditional schools into autonomous schools. I hope this will keep moving forward with the momentum of four [CPS] schools in place, two more coming in line and four more on deck,” Goar said, referencing the second cohort of applicants currently at different stages in the process of seeking CPS status.

Arts at Folwell

Prior to becoming a Community Partnership School, Folwell had identified the arts as its preferred tool for enhancing academic achievement. In declaring a CPS identity, Folwell educators simply chose to deepen their devotion to the arts.

While Folwell is a designated Focus School — where the achievement gap between students of color and their white peers is most stark  — stakeholders believe they can use the arts more effectively to reach students struggling to attain proficiency in math and reading.

MinnPost photo by Erin Hinrichs
Sixth-graders at Folwell participate in orchestra class. The program is supported by the Minnesota Youth Symphonies.

In order to double down on existing strengths, Principal Ronald Salazar says the school pursued a number of relatively small, yet impactful, autonomies. At the start of the year, they brought in experts from the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts to lead professional development training on arts integration — a central concept that had long been subject to interpretation by each teacher.

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In terms of implementation, staff built in more planning time for teachers during the day so they can better collaborate with the artists in residence that bring expertise into the classrooms.
“We’re trying to have the staff be able to carry on what the artists have done … so it becomes more embedded in our school,” Arts Coordinator Gabrielle Bliss said, noting this added face time has helped strengthen the school’s relationship with community partners like the Minnesota Opera and the Children’s Theatre Company.  

And while the CPS status doesn’t come with additional funding, or free it from fulfilling federally mandated resource allocation to areas like special education and English Language Learners (ELL) programming, the school is able move some finances around.

“For example, in our case, with some of the money allocated for academic specialists, we created two new classroom teacher positions to lower class size,” Salazar explained, noting this brought their fourth- and fifth-grade classes down from 35 to 25 kids per room.

“We have to give credit to the district. We were concerned they’d add kids, but they didn’t,” he added, noting the district respected Folwell’s commitment to lowering class size.

Already eying new changes for next year, staff say they’re talking about modifying the report card to include things like dance and instrumental music, revising the teacher evaluation system, and fully developing a community advisory council to help steer the school forward.

IB at Bancroft

Many of Bancroft’s asks resemble those implemented at Folwell: autonomy over professional development content, modifying student performance measures, and building in more time for teachers to plan lessons and assess student data during the school day.

Here, these changes are all made in the interest of amplifying the school’s International Baccalaureate focus. The autonomies are key because the district’s Focused Instruction curriculum framework doesn’t align with the IB model.

“It was very hard to do IB in an authentic way and follow the curricular expectations of the district,” third-grade teacher Beth Anderson said.

Exercising newfound freedoms in curricular design, Anderson and her colleagues set out to implement a new math curriculum that better aligns with their students’ learning style.

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“For us to move as a district in that way would have taken a lot more time and money,” first-grade teacher Mary Sjoberg said. “So we’re trying it. And that can be something the district can look at and learn from.”

Bancroft made a few other clear changes this year, to streamline its IB approach. This year the school switched to trimesters, which better align with IB units, and teachers also realigned the report card to match both the academic standards and IB’s units of inquiry that track growth in areas like a student’s sense of belonging and cross-cultural appreciation.

Principal Erin Glynn says their big push this summer will involve establishing a site council comprising teachers, parents and community members to discuss next steps because community buy-in is key.

Underscoring her point, Glynn said the school’s CPS design team had initially looked at extending the school day. But when they brought the idea to the entire team, only about 60 percent supported it, so they decided not to pursue it. Staff say this helped build trust that they really are central to the decision-making process.

Teacher leaders at Ramsey

When Ramsey Middle School was created four years ago, its focus on STEM and arts integration largely originated from community input — one of the key tenants of the CPS model.

“This was a way to name it and define it and be a part of this process,” Principal Amy Janecek said of the school’s decision to apply for CPS status.

Many of the autonomies Ramsey pursued can be tied to its strong reliance on teacher leadership. To help foster teacher leaders, the school implemented an informal peer feedback system that’s more conducive to professional growth than some of the more standard evaluation measures.

In terms of responding to the needs of students at Ramsey, staff also created an advisory program where they devote 25 minutes of each day to delivering lessons on building relationships, understanding routines, academic check-ins and more.

Perhaps one of the school’s most definitive deviations from district standards involves its adoption of a numbered grading rubric. By clearly outlining criteria for each assignment, students are invited to take more ownership in the learning process. In lieu of extra credit opportunities, they are asked to revisit work they could improve upon.

“Our teachers are so creative and innovative and want to move … I want to be able to let them go,” Janecek said. “Having worked at the district, [I know] it takes time to work out systems and supports. If our Community Partnership status allows us the credence to move forward in that way, I think it really benefits everyone involved.”

Wraparound services at Nellie Stone Johnson

Prior to becoming a Community Partnership School, Nellie Stone Johnson had been working closely with the Northside Achievement Zone to offer wraparound services — connecting students and their families to resources tied to stability like housing, health care and employment opportunities.

Burdened with very low reading and math proficiency levels, Principal Amy Luehmannn says her team saw the CPS status as an opportunity to deepen the school’s relationship with NAZ and invest more time developing data-informed lesson plans.

“We use data to inform our instruction and we’re drilling it down to the individual student. We’re not totally there yet, but there are some teachers now who lesson plan by student name, rather than classroom,” Luehmann said.

To support teachers in taking this added step, the school also elected to bring 17 scholar coaches on board, through its community partners, to help deliver math and reading interventions in each classroom.

Speaking on behalf of NAZ, Alysha Price says the school’s new status has already proven beneficial.

“What’s been really great is just the awareness in the community, recognizing Nellie Stone Johnson as a school that’s really starting to do some innovative work around supporting the entire family,” she said. “I think it’s going to continue to grow, for sure.”

Looking outward and onward

As the four pilot schools prepare for their annual review, to ensure they’re making strides toward their three-year implementation plan to improve student outcomes, they had the opportunity to draw inspiration from some more seasoned out-of-state counterparts.  

Ohrn recently took a group of key stakeholders from each site — along with representatives from schools that are currently applying for CPS status — on a trip to Los Angeles to learn from some exemplary autonomous schools that have gone from low to high performing.

MinnPost photo by Erin Hinrichs
Third-graders at Folwell follow Lori Ledoux’s lead during their tap dance class last week.

In researching similar initiatives that have already taken root in cities like Chicago, Cleveland, Boston, Oakland,  and Denver, as well as in Massachusetts, Ohrn says there’s strong reason to believe CPS schools in Minneapolis have the potential to achieve similar outcomes.

Looking at the evolution of district schools that have had freedom from district headquarters, some states have already adopted statewide policies to support greater school autonomy.

In Colorado, for instance, lawmakers passed the Innovation Schools Act in 2008 to encourage school boards to grant a high degree of autonomy to their schools and to streamline the process by designating innovation zones for interested schools with a common interest. Currently, three districts are in the process of establishing innovation zones, including Denver Public Schools.

According to Mary Seawell, an education expert with the Gates Family Foundation who’s helping implement the innovation zone in Denver, not only are these school gaining popular support but they’re also pushing the envelope forward — in some instances, taking the lead in opening new schools based on what they’ve found works.

Getting to this point has required a lot of persistence, something supporters in Minneapolis will need to adhere to if the model is to stick.

“The mistake is to try and do too much on the district side,” Seawell cautioned, adding progress is really based on leadership potential at the school level. “[At the district level] is where you get into a strong approval process of these schools and where you find if the school leaders have the capacity to pull this off.”

So far, the Minneapolis district’s outlook on the process seems to echo Seawell’s insight.

“All of our schools have large opportunity gaps and have room to improve student performance with specific subgroups,” Ohrn said. “Research has shown that … forced autonomy isn’t that successful. We’re trying to identify schools who want to take on this challenge and have a clear vision for how they want to improve outcomes for their students.”