June 4 marked the 25th anniversary of the signing of the nation’s first charter school law, here in Minnesota, which paved the way for the state’s first charter school, City Academy, to opened the following year. While the charter sector has long been a polarizing topic in Minnesota, it’s unlikely these public schools — which are granted more autonomy than traditional district schools in exchange for academic accountability — will lose their foothold in the local education landscape anytime soon.
Those that are “beating the odds” — characterized by both high test scores and high poverty rates — often make headlines. There’s a concentration of these schools in the Twin Cities, where more than 20 percent of the student population attends charters.
High-performing charters, however, don’t tell the whole story. A slew of chronically underperforming charters continue to serve some of the most disadvantaged youth in the state’s urban core. These charters, though, are often surrounded by district schools that aren’t faring much better, so simply shutting them down doesn’t necessarily ensure that students will land in a better seat elsewhere.
This reality, combined with a deep sense of community pride in a school that didn’t always rank as such a low performer, sent those affiliated with LoveWorks Academy for Visual and Performing Arts — a beloved, yet academically failing charter serving North Minneapolis youth — in search of an alternative to shutting its doors. This alternative turnaround effort marks another milestone in the state’s longstanding history as a leader in the charter sector.
At a critical juncture, those leading LoveWorks have chosen to embark upon the first operator-led charter-school turnaround effort in the state. While it requires an investment in outside expertise, the process has also elevated the voices of parents and community members who are committed to seeing things through. If proven successful, this collaborative approach may serve as a model for other broken charters looking to transform rather than shut down.
At a crossroads
Founded in 2005, LoveWorks Academy is a public K-8 charter with an emphasis on the arts. Its student body is about 98 percent African-American, and 90 percent qualify for free and reduced-price lunch. While the school is located in Golden Valley, it has deep ties to the north Minneapolis neighborhood that it serves.
But a sense of family and good intentions isn’t enough. LoveWorks has been flagged by the state as a “priority” school, because it ranks in the bottom fifth percentile of schools statewide based on student proficiency scores on standardized tests, individual student growth, and strides toward closing the achievement gap between students of color and white students.
In 2015, only about 10 percent of its third- and eighth-graders were meeting or exceeding state standards in math; only 8.5 percent were hitting proficiency in reading. In 2011, these numbers were closer to 21 percent proficiency in math and 52 percent proficiency in reading.
These prior levels showed early signs of distress, and records show the school experienced a fairly gradual slide from then until now — one that caught many parents off guard once school closure became a real possibility.
“I have a history with the school, and I’ve always loved it,” Tierney Carroll said. “Initially, when I found out we were low-performing, I was shocked because it was nothing I had personally experienced during my child’s time here.”
Carroll had enrolled her daughter at LoveWorks as a third-grader in 2006. She developed a deep affinity for the school, she says, because it was a close-knit community where teachers had high expectation of their students. And since the performing-arts focus was central to the school community’s identity, her daughter participated in the drumline team, coming back to support the program during her high school years.
About three years ago, Carroll joined the school board to stay involved. But she, along with her fellow community board members, needed to start facing some hard truths about the disconnect between the sense of community pride inside the building and the poor results being reported out.
“We had to talk about and be very candid about what our failings were. Because if we didn’t, we couldn’t get to where we are,” Carroll said. “While it probably was some feelings of shame, I think everyone knew that what was most important was getting the school and the children where they needed to be.”
Hiring a consultant
The board’s sense of urgency peaked at the urging of the school’s authorizer, Pillsbury United Communities. All charters fall under the oversight of an independent authorizer, which provides oversight and enforces accountability measures. In this case, Pillsbury United Communities recognized the need to intervene, after failed attempts at internal fixes, and presented the school board with an ultimatum: have its charter status revoked and disband, or, preferably, engage in a new turnaround effort through a third-party operator.
With that, the board sought out a pool of operator applicants and hired Distinctive Schools, a Chicago-based nonprofit that supports a portfolio of charters looking to beat the odds, to lead its all-or-nothing transformation initiative.
The interim principal of LoveWorks, George Sand, considers this new partnership a bold, yet necessary, move. “It really would not have happened without the encouragement of our authorizer,” he said. “I really admire them for that because they took a risk in approaching this in a different way.”
The decision to bring an outside management organization on board doesn’t come cheap. However, LoveWorks is securing philanthropic funding to help cover the expense. Those in support of the turnaround effort might consider the investment worthwhile for a number of reasons: School closure can cause a great deal of uncertainty in a community as it disrupts students and families, locks in taxpayer losses, and simply shifts the burden of struggling teachers and students to other schools without addressing the underlying issues.
Looking at the charter landscape in Minnesota, Distinctive Schools sees an opportunity, as a charter management organization, to play a critical role in helping schools like LoveWorks.
“If you look at the composition of charters in Minnesota — the lack of support and performance on the part of some — it appears you’ll never get to scale with enough high-quality seats for kids unless we look at a turnaround situation,” Mary Stafford, CEO and founder of the nonprofit said.
The operator broke into the local market this school year, supporting the K-2 Minnesota Early Learning Academy, which opened in Brooklyn Park this school year. Of the remaining high-performing K-8 public charters the organization manages, four are located in Chicago and one in Rockford.
Parents and community members serving on the LoveWorks school board spent a great deal of time studying the elements required of a successful turnaround effort and vetted Distinctive Schools before entering into a contract agreement. On a site visit to one of Distinctive’s schools in Chicago, Dina Payne, a parent and board member, was struck by the level of parental involvement that had been established there — an element she’d like to see replicated at LoveWorks.
“They have strategies or ideals in place that definitely get parents engaged. When we went, it was just unbelievable. Every parent, in some aspect, was involved,” she said, noting parents were serving as daytime volunteers, field trip chaperones, office help and more.
Sensing the potential to cultivate the same level of community involvement at LoveWorks, Distinctive Schools saw an opportunity to create change that would still honor the school’s nurturing culture and rich arts traditions.
“It’s amazing to me, given the academic performance of the school, how dedicated some of the families remain to be, as well as the staff,” Stafford said. “We’re trying to build agency and engagement for kids and families, rather than strict rules and regulations.”
A gradual process
It’ll take about three years before the turnaround effort at LoveWorks hits full stride. It’s a gradual, holistic, process that will require bolstering not only community involvement, but also staff and teacher morale and support.
April Shaw, the director of the turnaround effort at LoveWorks, says the first phase will focus on implementing a growth mindset inside the school community through professional training sessions and lots of community meetings.
“There was a vast amount of lack of communication,” she said, noting academic expectations were loosely defined and program implementation wasn’t consistent. “And staff felt there was a lack of support from the administration.”
Gearing up for phase two — personalized learning for every student — Shaw helped create a pilot classroom at LoveWorks so everyone will have a better sense of what changes are in store for the upcoming school year.
Midyear, Kerry Kost’s third-grade classroom underwent a major transformation. All of the traditional desks and chairs were replaced by whiteboard tables and comfy desk chairs on wheels. The fluorescent lights were turned off in favor of natural light from the windows, supplemented by a number of lamps dispersed throughout the classroom. And the space was broken into various coves, furnished with oversized pillows, trampoline chairs, bean bags, bookshelf cubbies and a futon.
These cosmetic changes, however, are only part of the equation. They really serve to support the more significant change: a focus on personalized instruction.
To this end, each student has been given access to a tablet. When using this device during a lesson like math, they are allowed to move around to a space they find comfortable — whether it be curled up inside a bookshelf cubby, sprawled out on a rug or sitting at a table with their peers so they can work collaboratively.
Kost says, at first, she was a bit apprehensive, suspecting the fun new classroom features would prove to be a distraction. But she’s found that her students are already responding well to the ability to be in control of their movements.
“The ability to differentiate [instruction] is so much greater because they are comfortable. They’re able to bounce or swivel to stay focused, so I can really give my attention to the group I’m working in,” she said, adding they naturally cluster into groups of like ability level to help each other out.
While discipline issues still arise from time to time, and her classroom roster continues to fluctuate as families transfer in and out of the school, Kost says she’s been pleased with the changes so far. Namely, she’s impressed with her third-graders’ ability to help take ownership over their own learning.
“I feel like I accomplish more because I am able to engage in more meaningful dialogue and meaningful instruction and it’s not all on me anymore — it’s us as a community, so it allows us to go deeper and hold each other accountable,” she said.
A sense of community
The sense of community is evident during a work period where students are set free to solve math problems on their tablets or rehearse lines for their classroom production of Hamilton.
For Wes Bacchus, 8, the perfect study spot is a cubby underneath the window where he can work without distraction. He plugged in a small red lamp for additional lighting and pulled in a pillow to sit on. Resting his tablet on his lap, he works quietly out of sight. He’s able to concentrate here, he says, because he’s too talkative when he’s sitting at a table. And it irritates him when others kick under the table.
He’s able to list all of the things that set his new classroom apart from the other classrooms at LoveWorks, for the time being. He’s also able to articulate why, in his estimation, these changes are worthwhile.
“It’s making it easier to learn because everybody stays on task, stays productive, keeps their head in the game,” he said.