When Russell Mosley was 4, his life turned upside down. In short order he lost his father to murder and his home to a house fire. His mother, having never finished high school, was going to be hard-pressed to support Mosley and his infant brother.
The family had nothing but the clothes they escaped the fire wearing, but Mosley’s mother vowed to go back to school, get her GED and give her boys a better future. Eventually she landed a good job on Wall Street, but years of struggles came first.
While she studied and worked, Mosley would look out the window of the New York housing project where the three landed. If he looked down, he saw drug-dealing, violence and prostitution — the slum’s worst problems writ large. If he looked up, though, he saw one of the world’s most expensive, celebrated views: the Manhattan skyline.
One day Mosley realized that he could, quite literally, choose to look down or to look up. “With the support of my mother and grandmother, I made the right choices,” he recalled.
Now a vice president at US Bank, he shares his story
Mosley is now vice president of Corporate Trust Services at US Bank, which places a premium on staff volunteerism. A couple of years ago, Mosley found the right opening to start giving back. Through AchieveMpls, which works to generate private-sector support for Minneapolis Public Schools, Mosley started telling his story to students at risk of dropping out.
He inspired a lot of people, and four months ago the nonprofit invited him to come to dinner with some people who were planning to open the first Minneapolis high school associated with Chicago’s incredibly successful Noble Network of charters.
Virtually all Noble students come from poverty, but the 10 schools graduate 99 percent of their seniors and 95 percent go to college. Noble students had the highest ACT scores among Chicago open enrollment schools in 2009, and 86 percent of alumni have earned or are pursuing post-secondary degrees.
At dinner, one of Noble’s principals, Pablo Sierra, talked about the distinct culture that makes the schools so successful.
“After hearing his passion for kids, it was impossible not to get involved,” said Mosley. “There was no way on God’s green earth I could not do it.”
Charter to open on north side next fall
Fast-forward a couple of conversations, and Mosley is president of the board of directors of Minneapolis College Prep, slated to open on the city’s north side next fall. The school hopes to recruit a freshman class of 200 for next year, and then to add a grade each of the next three years.
The project has earned recent mention in conjunction with MPS’ decision to close North High School. In part because of the lure of charters, enrollment at North has dwindled by 80 percent since 2005 to 265 students. MPS administrators say it costs an extra $4,000 per student to send kids to North.
Current students can stay until they graduate, and the district will consider opening a new North High in two years if the community can prove it will be attended, but there will be no freshman class in 2011.
Meanwhile, over the summer MPS approved charters for College Prep and two other new schools, which will operate completely independent of the district. Reformers applauded the district’s willingness to replicate programs that have beaten the odds elsewhere, but critics charged the board with rushing to “privatize” the district.
“To prevent eighth-graders from enrolling in North High and encourage them to enroll in the new Noble charter school next fall, and then pretend they will invest in a ‘New North’ the following fall is an absolute insult to the North High community and everyone concerned with public education in Minneapolis,” Robert Panning Miller wrote on MPS Parents, an online forum where education matters are discussed.
“If North can’t stay open because 260 students are not enough,” added Panning Miller, an MPS teacher and former president of the teachers union,” why would we try to open a new charter school, much less re-open a ‘new’ North?”
Starting from scratch: effective way to build strong culture
The answer, in a nutshell: Because when new schools beat the odds, or existing mainline public schools undergo a successful “turnaround,” it’s usually because starting from scratch is the most effective way to create a strong culture. The school’s leaders can hire a staff of teachers who want to work in that school in part because of the value system.
Many researchers have suggested that it’s not a school’s model — charter vs. mainline public — so much as this shared vision that enables some to consistently achieve great things with challenged populations. Twin Cities schools have had some successes that suggest they might well be right.
Noble schools succeed because students and parents also buy into the culture, said Batala McFarlane, publisher of Insight News and another College Prep board member. “Everyone, from day one, understands that this is the program, this is the plan,” she said. “In every classroom the board is the same; it lists the expectations for the day, the week. They’re all speaking the same language, and everyone wants to learn.”
Because learning is tough when your seatmate is not on board, Noble teachers are quick to deal with the smallest infractions, McFarlane said by way of example. “The culture is very empowering to young people,” she said. “They all feel like they can learn.”
High expectations, consistently voiced
A planning analyst in Hennepin County’s Office of Multicultural Services, Rosita Balch is also on the board. “We went to the first day of school [at Noble’s Pritzger College Prep] and from morning until night, the expectation is, ‘You are a professional and you are expected to behave like a professional,” she said.
Noble students meet every day in small, same-sex advisory groups throughout all four years of high school, Balch added. “The teacher gets to know the kids really well,” she said. “It creates a feeling of family.”
Some of Noble teachers’ pay is based on performance; one measurement taken into account is how well they help each other. “It helps create an environment that’s not competitive, it’s collaborative,” said Mosley.
The College Prep board has already hired a principal, who is spending the rest of the year in Chicago immersing herself in Noble’s operations. The next step will be to hire teachers, followed by recruiting students.
“When you come into our school, on day one, you start to talk about possibility,” said Mosley, who credits his achievements to his mother’s refusal to give up and his luck at finding other adults who helped him look up and not down.
“What doesn’t change for kids from one generation to another,” he added, “what doesn’t get old, is if someone believes in that child, invests in that child, possibility still exists.”