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‘Beat the odds’ schools: exploring their lessons

Last month, when the results of the Minnesota Comprehensive Assessments were released, for the second year running more than half of those schools that “beat the odds” — that is, have both high test scores and high poverty rates — catered to a singl

Last month, when the results of the Minnesota Comprehensive Assessments were released, for the second year running more than half of those schools that “beat the odds” — that is, have both high test scores and high poverty rates — catered to a single ethnic or racial group.

The north Minneapolis charters Harvest Prep and Seed Academy, for instance, serve impoverished African-Americans who score well above state averages. Twin Cities International Elementary and Higher Ground Academy both post higher-than-average scores from African immigrants.

And then last week, my colleague Cynthia Boyd, author of MinnPost’s Community Sketchbook blog, posted a story about a recent survey that showed an exceptional percentage of Somali children enter kindergarten ready to learn, according to standardized measurements. She talked to a number of educators and service providers while putting together her article, which mentioned Somali parents’ intense interest in education as one possible factor.

Talking about the intersection of race, culture and education is about as charged a conversation as exists today — something I daresay is reflected by some recent red-hot comment threads on this very site. It’s easy for people to look at a particular set of numbers and assume that the message to be gleaned is that one group of kids is better positioned to learn, or otherwise holds the keys to the kingdom of success.

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Cindy and I have had a couple of conversations about this in recent days because we’re both interested in continuing to explore the lessons these statistical outlier schools hold for anyone interested in closing the achievement gap.

Article bears revisiting
As a part of that exchange, she passed along a link to a story The New York Times ran a couple of years ago that I think bears revisiting in light of this discussion. The article took a look at what was then 138 charter schools that focused on specific immigrant or ethnic groups.

Among other things, it quoted a Somali parent with kids at the aforementioned Twin Cities International Elementary describing the appeal for her family. A snippet, to convince you it’s worth reading:

Some critics argue that these kinds of charter schools are contributing to a growing re-segregation of public education, and that they run counter to the long-held idea of public schools as the primary institution of the so-called “melting pot,” the engine that forges a common American identity among immigrants from many countries.

“One of the primary reasons that American society supports public schools is to give everyone a solid civic education,” said Diane Ravitch, an education historian, “the sort of education that comes from learning together with others from different backgrounds.”

But there’s isolation, alienation
But Dr. Suárez-Orozco says the reality is that most new immigrants become isolated in public schools, and that large numbers of them become alienated over time and fail to graduate.

A place like Minnesota, with its strong charter-school movement, offers immigrant parents, who have long been conflicted about their children becoming Americanized, a strong voice in their children’s education, Dr. Suárez-Orozco said, and shows their eagerness to participate in democracy.

Aren’t you curious both about the phenomenon and about what it would take to have a constructive conversation about this? I am. I hope you’ll let us know if you have ideas.