This time last year, Russell Mosley was positively on fire. An executive with U.S. Bank and with an astonishing story about bootstrapping himself out of poverty, he was spending every spare minute getting ready to open the doors of Minneapolis College Prep.
A first-of-its-kind offshoot of a network of Chicago charter high schools that not only graduate virtually every impoverished student but send them all to college, the school had a board, headed by Mosley, startup funding and sponsorship from Minneapolis Public Schools.
It also had acquired a lease for the beloved but shuttered former Lincoln Community School building on the city’s near north side.
Yet before Mosley had a chance to hire his first teacher, College Prep became the subject of a conspiracy theory: MPS’ decision to charter the novel program even as it was weighing closing North High, the rumor mill posited, was the first step in a covert plan to privatize its schools.
The critics weren’t all north side residents — some were Minneapolis Federation of Teachers stalwarts, loath to see the district opening a school with a nonunion staff — but given the neighborhoods’ sad history with the Educational Establishment, the damage was done.
Many had heard nothing
Equally dispiriting, many folks who had not heard the rumors hadn’t heard anything about the school at all.
“When we started talking to funders and community leaders, they would say to us, ‘We didn’t realize there was a school opening up in Lincoln,’” said Mosely. “I talked to three or four north side leaders who really should have known who we were, and I realized none knew.”
A bad omen for any school startup, but likely disaster for a program hoping to attract students within a community that’s so accustomed to expecting betrayal that it sometimes invites it.
And so Mosley and the rest of College Prep’s similarly on-fire board banked their embers. They took a collective deep breath and set about talking to families and community groups about the kind of education they’d like to be able to offer their children.
“It’s a lot easier to talk to people without background noise,” he said.
As suspected, their model — the highly disciplined, achievement-focused environment that enables Chicago’s Noble Network schools to send 95 percent of students to college — was just what parents dreamed of, as was the act of asking and listening attentively to the answers.
Two high schools in area next fall
While the College Prep team was busy forging relationships, MPS decided to keep North open, bringing in a nonprofit with expertise in engaging community in school redesign. And so, for the first time in decades, next fall the area will have not just one, but two schools created with maximum community buy-in.
College Prep will open with 150 ninth-graders and add a grade in each of the next four years. With luck, the school’s college-bound focus will draw families back from Twin Cities suburbs.
An initial round of applications is being accepted through Feb. 29, although Mosley and College Prep’s new principal, Angela Chang, encourage prospective students to go ahead and apply — a simple, non-competitive process that will take two minutes online — even if they miss that deadline.
I had a chance to spend the day at Noble’s Pritzker College Prep last year, and it was an amazing experience. Far from the “drill and kill” critics suspect, Pritzker’s students were engaged in higher-order critical thinking in subjects ranging from calculus to humanities.
What makes Noble school distinct? For starters, the aforementioned discipline, which starts with picking seeming nits like gum-chewing and uniforms and ratchets up to students demonstrating they are on task all the time.
Developing discipline from within
The discipline is imposed from the outside at first, but little by little students’ intrinsic motivation takes over and they assume a lead role in planning to raise their test scores to the point where they win admission into the college of their choice.
“It runs so smoothly because everyone has to follow the same rules,” senior and aspiring aerospace engineer Michelle Ramos explained during my visit to Pritzker. “You know no one is going to be a distraction or get out of line.”
Academics are rigorous, teachers have special training, and kids are in school more hours than their mainline public-school counterparts. Every detail, from the level of noise allowed in the hall between classes to the “7 Habits of Successful Teens” posters in each classroom, is the result of deliberate thought.
The first two years a student spends at a Noble school aren’t entirely unlike boot camp. On the first day of school, students are given a crash course in expectations, including an overview of a very strict demerit policy. Each demerit brings a $5 fine; 12 add up to a ticket to summer school.
“The first day of school, [Principal Pablo] Sierra stood above us and asked, ‘What’s your goal?’” recalled senior Patrick Murphy. “We stared at him with blank faces. And he said, ‘Your goal is to graduate from college.’ And we repeated it over and over. It didn’t have meaning then, but now it does.”
Chang worked in Chicago for seven years, the last four as an administrator with Noble and the last two as a school leader.
Biggest challenge: hiring
Her biggest challenge at the moment is recruiting staff that is both enthusiastic about the Noble model and licensed to teach in Minnesota. For the inaugural year, Chang needs to hire 10 instructors, one administrator and a dean of students.
Teacher layoffs in recent years have created a huge candidate pool, but few of the traditionally trained teachers have the particular mix of skills that most often work at a Noble school. A charter-reform bill currently before the legislature contains a provision that would make it easier for schools like College Prep to recruit teachers from other urban areas.
College Prep candidates should be prepared to show evidence of results obtained in past jobs. Those hired can expect to be paid competitively, to work longer hours and to be evaluated in large part on the basis’ of student achievement.
Those who roll their eyes at gum-chewing as an issue will be excused. “If you have a school environment where everyone is pushing in the same direction, it makes a big difference,” Chang said. “These little behaviors that seem insignificant? They really aren’t.”
And a teacher who thinks they are, in her experience, is more likely to imagine community college as a decent outcome for his or her students, not the Ivy League. “We need people who know what their teacher voice is for the founding year,” she said.
About that other high school opening on the north side next year? Mosley has one more dream: He’d like College Prep’s students to have the opportunity to participate in North’s celebrated athletic programs.