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Minneapolis College Prep preps for fall opening

Russell D. Mosley

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.

Angela ChangAngela Chang

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.

Comments (4)

  1. Submitted by Joe Nathan on 02/27/2012 - 10:05 am.

    A brief question

    So, Beth, if this school is mostly African American students, will that be a very bad thing? MinnPost ran a story saying yes it would on Friday (recognizing that someone else wrote it). But I am wondering if you think there is a place in K-12 like Howard or Morehouse Universities – historically and mostly African American. Or would you see them, if mostly or all African Americans select the school, and if it has strong academic achievement, as a bad thing?

  2. Submitted by Dennis Tester on 02/27/2012 - 03:23 pm.

    Two lines jumped out at me

    “With luck, the school’s college-bound focus will draw families back from Twin Cities suburbs.”
    Why? What’s wrong with trying to attract all the kids from the neighborhood? The ones who are growing up together, whose families know each other, who go to the same church together, etc., tend to support each other.

    And this: “… few of the traditionally trained teachers have the particular mix of skills that most often work at a Noble school.” It really is a cultural shift from the status quo to what works.

  3. Submitted by Beth Hawkins on 02/27/2012 - 04:10 pm.

    Joe;I think you pose a false


    I think you pose a false dichotomy. Or, as you said yourself in the aforementioned story about charter schools and segregation: Which gets better gas mileage, the leased car or the rented car?

    There is a body of evidence–presented most recently hereabouts by the 40-plus witnessness who spoke to a state task force about the value of integration–that students perform best in integrated schools. According to that testimony, exposure to people from different backgrounds is in and of itself beneficial to a person’s developement. And also according to that testimony, in Minnesota, race is fairly closely correlated with class, so integration often confers some benefit in terms of the socioeconomic makeup of a school.

    You correctly stated in that story, and both its author Cynthia Boyd and I have reported repeatedly, that there are schools that are achieving remarkable things with students who start at a severe disadvantage. Some are multiethnic, some are single-race or culture. I will not speak for their leaders, but my understanding is that some do leverage race or culture and count that as part of their success. But as public schools, charters (with some exception) take all comers.

    An aspect of the integration discussion that has always frustrated me concerns the status quo, e.g. since we seem to lack the will to really work to integrate schools, which we have just affirmed again is a value Minnesotans continue to hold, what do we do with those kids who are being thrown away while we try to figure out how to insure that all of our classrooms provide both an equitable education and one where our kids learn about the richness of the world from each other. I daresay those kids can’t wait for us.

    And–a final and–mainline public schools are not waiting to answer this as an either-or question. They are trying to figure out how to borrow the practices that work in the innovative schools right now and put them to use with learners of all races and cultures.

  4. Submitted by Darryl Ziller on 02/27/2012 - 04:46 pm.

    I have a family member that teaches at one of the Noble schools in Chicago. The schools are almost entirely low income families, and ethnically evenly split between black and Latino. There are few “race issues” within the schools. Individual schools are definitely not set up to be solely Latino or solely black.
    So Noble is integrated or not, depending on your definition.
    The typical teacher and staff at Noble is young, highly motivated, and has several degrees from select universities. Many are former Teach for America teachers. I imagine the new principal is looking for similar.
    Kids do transfer out of Noble because of the discipline and workload. Noble graduates are impressive young people.
    I’m curious how this new school will vary from its Chicago inspiration.

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