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Culture counts: At Adelante, the road to college is walked on day one

How do new and reorganized schools seed culture? With several such programs opening this fall, Twin Cities educators now have an unprecedented opportunity to find out.

Adelante Prep students spent an hour learning to get breakfast and clean up, 35 minutes practicing passing quietly through the lunchroom door without shoving or bunching up and, after some other exercises, going back in for lunch.
MinnPost photo by Beth Hawkins

Part One of an occasional series

Culture; noun

  • The act of developing the intellectual and moral faculties, especially by education;
  • The set of shared attitudes, values, goals, and practices that characterizes an institution or organization;
  • The act or process of cultivating living material in prepared nutrient media; also: a product of such cultivation.

— Merriam-Webster

It’s about 3 p.m. on the first day of school and the brand-new class of 2020 has been walking the halls of Adelante College Prep for upwards of 90 minutes. Before this, students spent an hour learning to get breakfast and clean up, 35 minutes practicing passing quietly through the lunchroom door without shoving or bunching up and, after some other exercises, going back in for lunch.

adelante prep logoIt’s taking so long because the teachers are making the entire group — 78 fifth-graders and six sixth-graders — repeat each task until everyone has it exactly right. Monotonous though it sounds, they are, quite literally, taking the first steps toward creating a strong, distinctive school culture.

In recent years, the overwhelming majority of the top-performing high-poverty Twin Cities schools have been charters. That legal structure allows them flexibility in terms of staffing and operations. But that has been true throughout charter schools’ two decades of existence, during which the majority have failed to outperform their mainline brethren.

Some proponents have come to believe that the biggest single advantage a brand-new school — or a “fresh-started” turnaround school — enjoys is the chance to create a distinctive culture, hire only teachers who buy into it and set one consistent level of expectations from students’ first day.

But it doesn’t always work. Minneapolis’ KIPP Stand Academy, the first local outpost of the most famous of the odds-beating school networks, has struggled. And changing the entrenched culture of an existing school is much harder.

Different ways to same goal

How do new and reorganized schools seed culture? With several such programs opening over the next couple of weeks, Twin Cities educators now have an unprecedented opportunity to find out.

All intend to put a premium on the relationship between culture and academics, but each hopes to get there a different way. MinnPost plans to attend school periodically throughout the year to watch as those cultures stumble, or coalesce and thrive.

Minneapolis College Prep, a charter high school opening this week on the city’s north side, is modeled on Chicago’s successful Noble Street network of schools, and will adopt its rules and routines.

After a year-long redesign that was a partnership between community members and a New York school-turnaround nonprofit, Minneapolis Public Schools’ storied North High will reopen next week.

Adopting best practices and creating new ones

The creation of Hiawatha’s and Adelante’s desired culture, meanwhile, has been an organic process. The schools’ leaders have adopted the best practices from high-performing schools throughout the country and come up with a few of their own.

Case in point: Students are spending the week on mats in the lunchroom “earning” their chairs, desks and school shirts by getting one thing after another right.

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“We made a decision a long time ago to do everything in the order in which it needs to happen,” explains teacher Mandy Williams. “You have to walk the halls to get to recess.”

Most of these kids spent their first five school years at Hiawatha Leadership Academy, a south Minneapolis K-4 charter school serving impoverished minorities, 75 percent of whom are learning to speak English. There, the expectation was for kids to walk the halls single-file, in silence.

Every aspect geared to one goal

At Adelante, Hiawatha’s middle-school offshoot, every aspect of the culture is geared toward making sure students attend and graduate from college. In college, the teachers pointed out an hour and a half ago when the hall-walking started, people walk in ones and twos conversing in soft voices.

When the kids started walking they were giggling and pushing, falling into faster and slower clumps. The teachers walking with them and modeling polite conversation are stopping the group sometimes every few feet and sending everyone back to start over.

No one gets called out for the behavior that’s sending the entire group back to the starting line. “It’s no big deal,” Principal John Kaczorek keeps saying, “We’re just going to keep trying.”

The purpose of this laser-like focus on culture is several-fold. For starters, every tedious minute spent now learning to thank the lunch lady or hold the door for the person behind you will translate directly into time teachers will not have to spend on “classroom management,” the near-constant redirection of the wiggly, defiant or inattentive that plagues many schools.

And it will seed the kind of poise these kids, many of whom will be the first in their families to finish high school, will need if they are to complete college and compete in the work force.

A deeper message

Finally, it has a deeper, more primal purpose than compliant behavior: It sends the message that corners will not be cut here, even on the seemingly trivial. Everyone is held accountable to the same high expectations.

Technically, Adelante’s first day took place a year ago, when Hiawatha’s first cohort of fourth-graders graduated. The 50 new middle-schoolers spent a year wedged into a back hallway of the elementary school’s Longfellow neighborhood building.

Those kids will join the newcomers on day three of the school’s first year as a standalone venture. In each of the next two years a new grade will be added; eventually Adelante will serve grades 5-8.

It’s the second step of an ambitious plan to open five odds-beating schools — two elementary schools, two middle schools and a high school — serving 2,000 Minneapolis kids.

The percentage of students who score proficient on state tests hovers in the 70-percent range; not nearly high enough, but about 10 percent higher than the statewide average.

No. 1 of ‘Reward’ schools

Scored according to Minnesota’s new multiple measurement ratings, a system that factors in poverty, the number of students making more than a year’s progress on tests and other variables, Hiawatha’s scores last year earned it the No. 1 spot on the state’s list of “Reward” schools, the highest-performing 15 percent.

The number of students failing to pass the tests fell by some 15 percent from 40 percent in 2010 and to about 25 in 2011, while the number failing statewide rose in inverse proportion. The program’s overall score was 99.79 percent of a possible 100. Its achievement gap rating was an eye-popping 99.94 percent.

Meanwhile, only half of MPS students graduate. Among Latinos, the proportion is even lower at 37 percent.

In exchange for a 10-year lease with two five-year options for extensions, the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis sank $1.5 million into renovating the former Incarnation school at Pleasant Avenue South and 38th Street West. 

Adelante’s two grades are served by a dozen teachers, two of them “fellows” who do not yet have enough experience to head their own classroom and who double as substitutes. Of the other 10, one is a special-ed teacher and one a paraprofessional who is assigned to a single high-need student.

Longer days, longer year

The school day starts at 7:50 a.m. and ends at 4:15 p.m. every day except Friday, when students are dismissed at 1:30 p.m. The school year is longer, too, adding up to 40 percent more instructional time. Teachers are expected to carry school-issued cell phones and to keep them on until 9 p.m. in case students or parents need help.

Principal Kaczorek and Eli Kramer, interim director of the fledgling network (and yes, one of those Kramers), expect continual growth from the teaching staff, too. To that end, one classroom in the remodeled building is outfitted as a “talent lab.”

Signals from video and audio recording devices affixed to the ceiling are fed to an antechamber that’s behind one-way glass. Teachers will complete residencies here and instructional leaders, aka principals and other administrators, will be taught to give effective feedback. The two schools already have their own YouTube channel stocked with videos of excellent teaching.

As the first day of school wears on, students start to look tired. After an hour of walking the halls, first one way, then another, then down one staircase and up another, they fall silent and start to shuffle.

Going for mastery

Kaczorek stops them. “You guys are just trying to get on to the next activity,” he says. “But that’s not going to happen.” Not until the casual, conversational volume they mastered at breakfast and lunch is demonstrated in the halls.

At first blush, it seems punitive. But hardly anyone, adults or kid, is displaying attitude. The teachers are insisting on seemingly tiny corrections — not touching the walls, for instance, because the oils from fingers can darken grout — but they are respectful and positive.

One girl motions to a teacher that she wants to quit; her brand-new sequined silver sneakers aren’t broken in and her feet hurt. No problem, replies her teacher, who is every bit as sick of the marching as her pupils but unwilling to let on. The girl can take her shoes off and finish the exercise in her socks.

“The easier thing to do on these first days is to teach kids to be silent, but we don’t believe that’s better for kids,” says Kramer. “We want to develop independent, critical, free-thinkers. We ask the question in these first days, ‘What does that look like in college?’”

‘Climbing the mountain to college’

And “climbing the mountain to college,” the school motto, means taking advantage of every moment, the teachers explain. At the start of the day, each student was asked to take a stapled packet of papers known as morning work. Those who finish a task or a lesson before their classmates are expected to sit quietly and work on the math problems or fill in the spaces for complete sentences.

In most schools that place this kind of premium on culture, there’s another aspect to it: To apply the extrinsic motivation of rules until intrinsic motivation to succeed kicks in.

At Chicago’s Noble Street schools, for example, students know their practice ACT scores, as well as the scores they will need to get into the colleges they’re aiming for. Most come to take responsibility for shoring up the weaknesses standing between them and admission.

College identities

When Adelante’s students earn their desks and chairs, they will sit at them in classrooms that have the identity of colleges and universities, many in Minnesota. Their walls will sport pennants and they will be referred to by their college’s mascot, e.g. Gophers. And they will be told, starting on day one, that they are going to college, no matter how many hours of walking the halls it takes.

As they practice hall walking, a boy has a scowl plastered across his face and is attempting to walk away. A teacher takes him aside, out of view of the others, and tries to engage him. His defiant posture doesn’t change after several of these interactions, so he is asked to sit on the sidelines.

When the group finally gets the walking and talking right, the teachers make them do it again to make sure it’s not a fluke. And then they make them do it down a new set of corridors to the building’s subterranean gym.

After explaining the rules to “sharks and minnows,” a teacher assigns kids wearing shirts of one color to be the sharks who lurk in the center of the gym trying to catch the rest, the minnows, as they race from one end of the gym to the other.

Heels, skirts and ties notwithstanding, the grownups join the game, plopping down “on their pockets” as they are tagged out. They play several rounds, the last one with the teachers as sharks.

Afterward, the students walk, in twos and threes using inside voices, up the stairs and down the hall to the mats where they will learn what’s next in the process of earning their desks.