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Culture counts: For Minneapolis College Prep, student engagement is a prime classroom tool

Closing the gap on standardized tests is important, MCP Principal Angela Chang says, “But our mission is college preparedness.”

MCP’s 50 new students spent the first two days of the new school year learning the school’s super-strict behavioral rules and taking placement tests.
Courtesy of Minneapolis College Preparatory School

This article is part of an occasional series in which Learning Curve is examining the school cultures established by three Minneapolis schools aiming to close the achievement gap.

On the first day of her ninth-grade civics class, Emmi Santos leads a cohort of kids through the process of staging a debate. The topic is capital punishment and, because Minneapolis College Prep (MCP) is brand new, the seven kids are working together for the first time.

The three boys and four girls in Santos’ class at the moment are all minorities, and all come from families that are poor enough to qualify for free or reduced-price lunches. Three of the girls wear religious headgear; the intricate Henna tattoos worn during the Muslim holiday of Eid grace the fingers and forearms of two.

The class has just finished reading three vocabulary-heavy paragraphs on the death penalty, its prevalence and uses, and the cases for and against it. Santos asks them to write down their understanding and best argument and then split into two groups to stage a quick debate.

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“What do they mean by ‘perpetuates a social injustice?’” she asks the students. “Does anyone have a guess? Can you infer from what you read?”

Honing their arguments

One of the hennaed girls, Nallah, pulls her desk eagerly over to the anti-death penalty team’s huddle. Her serpentine tattoos add drama to the emphatic arm movements that accompany her opinion.

“Death is not always the worst thing,” she argues. “Some people want to escape this life and it’s more of a punishment to let them live. Having to suffer lifelong jail is worse than a quick and easy way out.”

The pro-capital-punishment team, meanwhile, has been compiling examples of unrequited mass murderers ranging back to Ted Bundy, who “killed 10-20 people in the ’80s,” and who will resist rehabilitation.

Santos is on her feet the whole time, making sure each side focuses on more than its best arguments. The debaters should be anticipating arguments they will need to rebut, as well as assigning someone to take notes.

There’s zero bickering or woolgathering, and, strangers or not, the kids on both teams are actively soliciting one another’s critiques and thoughts on who should play what role in the mini-debate. They are so engaged they are still advancing their cases after the 2:15 bell sends them to their next class.

Santos collects their papers as they file out. Today’s lesson hooked the students, certainly, but for the teacher it had a secondary purpose. When she reads their statements, Santos will get a good idea where each pupil is academically.

Students grouped into five cohorts

MCP’s 50 new students spent the first two days of the new school year learning the school’s super-strict behavioral rules and taking placement tests. While the kids were busy realizing that their teachers will in fact hand out demerits for infractions as small as shirts partially untucked, the teachers were busy grouping them into five cohorts.

Today, day three of school, those cohorts are attending classes for the first time. Members of cohort No. 1 are performing at or near grade-level. The kids in No. 5 are a staggering three to five years behind.

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As shocking as the notion is that these students were allowed to stall in the fourth grade, consider how easily schools leave kids behind. Most of the level-five kids came here from other charter schools that were supposed to be alternatives to struggling mainline public schools.

Equally disturbing, it’s pretty hard to tell the 1’s from the 5’s just by attending class. Principal Angela Chang’s explanation: “The kids who are behind can front at this point.”

The goal for all cohorts: college

That stops right now, she adds. Never mind the skills these kids arrived with, every single one will leave MCP for college.

Minneapolis College Prep is one of a handful of new schools opening in the city this fall aimed at closing the academic achievement gap. Many education advocates have come to believe that a strong school culture is a crucial ingredient in any gap-closing strategy, but questions abound.

Most of the schools achieving great results with impoverished minority student bodies in the Twin Cities are charter schools with distinctive, deliberate cultures. Of course, a charter — the legal document that creates a school outside a traditional district — does not in and of itself seed such a culture.

And if innovation was one of the original goals of the charter school movement and culture one of its truly promising innovations, isn’t the next goal insight on how to graft a culture of success onto a failing school, chartered or not?

Because the schools opening here this year all aim to get to the same result via a different process, MinnPost plans to spend the coming academic year attending three schools — MCP, the middle school Adelante College Prep, and Minneapolis Public Schools’ redesigned North High — to record how their cultures stumble or soar.

House in former Lincoln Community School

The building MCP occupies is the former Lincoln Community School on Minneapolis’ near north side, which is symbolic on several levels. When MPS mothballed Lincoln in 2007, it was not because no one cared.

Beloved by its neighbors, Lincoln’s stately three-story building served as something of a community hub. Following a decade of plummeting enrollment in which fully half of north Minneapolis’ school-aged residents decamped for charter, parochial or suburban schools, the district was taken over by a board and an administration determined to re-engage the community.

Minneapolis College Preparatory School students
Courtesy of Minneapolis College Preparatory SchoolMinneapolis College Prep is one of a handful of new schools opening in the city this fall aimed at closing the academic achievement gap.

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MPS staff literally began canvassing neighborhoods, knocking on doors and asking what it would take to win families back. Listening actually began taking place at community listening sessions. And yet no amount of goodwill could change the fact that the exodus from the schools had sparked an exodus from the surrounding neighborhoods.

There weren’t enough kids to keep Lincoln, a fledgling symbol of this open-door policy, open. Nor were there enough kids to justify continuing to admit freshmen classes to storied North High, although the angry debate over its future would occupy the next four years.

Introduction to the Noble Network

Two years ago a US Bank executive by the name of Russell Mosley, a man whose impoverished childhood more commonly would put him on a different life path, was busily giving back by volunteering for the nonprofit AchieveMPLS, which engages the private sector in supporting MPS, among other things.

The nonprofit’s leaders invited Mosley to dinner one night to meet the people behind the odds-beating Noble Network of Chicago schools, charters with a laser-like focus on culture. Mosley had something of a conversion experience.

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

With Noble’s assistance, Mosley and a board of like-minded community representatives spent months getting ready to open MCP in the fall of 2011, only to run headlong into any number of thorny realities. Chief among them: MPS had finally, definitively announced it was closing North. MPS was also the new school’s charter authorizer.

Pushed first day back a year

Nothing spreads faster on the city’s north side than a conspiracy theory involving MPS, which this time came under suspicion of planning to privatize the school system by closing mainline schools while extending charters to newcomers. And so the MCP crew retrenched, pushing the first day of school back a year.

During that time a couple of critical things happened. First, the school’s board enticed Chang, the veteran of several odds-beating programs, away from Noble and told her to begin assembling a team. Second, MPS reversed course and hired a nonprofit school turnaround group to oversee a community-led redesign of North. 

And so the two schools are opening within days of each other with the same strong-culture goal, but very different roots.

Chang and her 14-person crew, half of whom learned their craft traditionally and half in alternative certification programs, have been working to bring Lincoln back to life since Aug. 1. Several of the 10 teachers cajoled friends into helping them paint their classrooms. A squad of volunteers from Target Corp. showed up to clean.

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Weeds still erupt from the ugly cement playground and choke the atriums that let light into the building’s hallways, but as high schoolers, MCP’s teens won’t use those spaces for a while anyway.

Diverse set of families

Families are still trickling in, having found the school on Google, through community groups and, in a few instances, though MPS’ Student Placement Center. A few are from first-ring suburbs and while all are poor, virtually every race and ethnicity is represented.

Families have been calling for days, asking about the fine points of MCP’s very particular dress code. No, silver buckles on black shoes are not OK, Dean of Students Stephanie Millar explains to one questioner, but fortunately permanent marker is an easy fix.

As the aforementioned demerits accumulate and start to translate into Friday afternoon detention and small monetary fines, the staff expects another round of calls. This kind of emphasis on discipline inconveniences parents of kids who test its boundaries. Counter-intuitive though it sounds, the system pushes a kind of forced family engagement.

Every day each class has a “greeter,” a student assigned to answer any knock at the door with a firm handshake, professional greeting and recitation of what’s going on in the class. In addition to teaching poise, the system creates a powerful incentive to pay attention.

Chang and Millar are spending the first few days randomly knocking on as many doors as possible to prepare the greeters. Some need reminding to step out into the hall, some to take their hands out of their pockets as they talk.

The greeter system is a popular element of many odds-beaters’ cultures. It’s not possible to tell at first blush which MCP kids belong to which cohort, but it is immediately apparent how many have experience orienting and welcoming classroom visitors.

Kids who need to use the bathroom must signal their teachers, who call the office to request an escort. Students typically only need to experience being accompanied by the security guard once or twice to conclude that it’s easier to stay in class and pay attention.

Wide variety of materials

Eventually, or so the theory goes, these students will become internally motivated to take advantage of every moment of class. And in this, MCP’s staff has added its own touch: The materials being used to teach to the same standards kids in every school in the state must meet are, in many instances, both unconventional and culturally diverse.

No matter their organizational model, many school administrators today are requiring teachers to use uniform curricula and materials to try to close the gap. Teachers hate this at least as much as the popular perception that they are union-protected laggards who can’t figure out how to reach kids on their own.

“I’ve always found your best classroom management tool is student engagement,” says Chang. “Everyone here knows of the many, many students with whom it took several tries to break through. But once you reach them, you’ve got them.”

For her multicultural literature class, Teresa Gloppen has set out an astonishing array of books. On the first day of classes, African-American author Richard Wright’s “Rite of Passage” sits atop a stack Gloppen is moving between groups of students charged with writing predictions about the year’s reading, among other things.

Other titles include “The Secret Life of Bees,” “Hunger Games,” “Reading Lolita in Tehran,” “Persepolis” and “The Color Purple,” along with books by Sherman Alexie and Jamaica Kincaid. A second teacher whose classroom is empty right now is helping the 11 kids examine subtitles and cover blurbs for clues as to the contents. One group is being led in a discussion of the possible meanings, literal and metaphoric, of the phrase “lambs to the slaughter.”

Aims for at least one AP course per student

A former Advanced Placement English teacher, Gloppen wants every MCP student to take at least one AP course before they leave. To that end, she has set out not just literature that speaks to a range of cultures but literature that will begin building that level of rigor — a challenge with cohort No. 1, and positively audacious with the students who are years behind.

A boy at a table nearby illustrates another challenge. Despite constant stimulus from the adults, he is paying zero attention. He’s running the index card he’s supposed to be writing on over the contours of his face and fussing with his new shoes. He doesn’t realize he’s dropped his pen until his seatmate retrieves it for him.

Because families in search of schools are still trickling into MCP, and because they typically arrive with very little in the way of student records, staff have only suspicions to go on about which students have come from special-ed programs and will require the intervention of specialized staff.

Most of MCP’s teachers have taught in urban settings, and most have strong feelings about the importance of using materials that are as culturally diverse as the student body. “As a staff we came to a consensus,” explains Chang. “We know a lot of our students may dislike schools.”

And, particularly given the string of broken promises in this community, their parents may, too.

‘We don’t want to break another promise’

“There have been lots of broken promises and lots of experiments that did not make it,” says Millar. “We don’t want to break another promise.”

Closing the gap on standardized tests is important, Chang adds, “But our mission is college preparedness.” And that requires a culture of high expectations in everything from academic rigor to tucking your shirt into your pants and belting it at the waist.

Cater-corner across the building from the literature class, Lindsey Simondet takes a quick poll of her last music class of the day. How many kids have ever played an instrument? One hand goes up.

Who can read music? No one.

How many had a music class in grades K-9? Not a single kid raises their hand.

“OK,” Simondet says, smiling. “In some ways that’s better. We can all start fresh together.”