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Friendship Academy’s journey to success took no easy path

Educators learned that it is possible — if painful — to propel outsized gains in proficiency in a very short period of time.

According to the state’s new Multiple Measures Rating (MMR), Friendship Academy is among the top 15 percent of high-poverty schools, and places in the 94th percentile of all Minnesota schools.
Courtesy of Friendship Academy

For the last few weeks, every day after lunch Datrica Chukwu has kept a date with five wiggly third-graders she calls her “ladies.” At precisely 12:30, while their classmates at Friendship Academy of the Arts are at recess, the girls present themselves to Chukwu, the school’s academic director, for math exercises.

The ladies requested the extra instruction, and while they can articulate all kinds of reasons why, it’s easy to suspect that what they really want is a little more face-time with the infectious, kinetic Chukwu. On its surface the drill that ensued on a recent Friday had more to do with Uggs and handbags than with arithmetic.

“If you want your own salon, your own house, your own car, you have to know how to count your money,” Chukwu told the group.

As the ladies called out the items they wanted to buy on a trip to the Mall of America, Chukwu made up a budget. Her pupils in turn had to identify the place — ones, tens, hundreds and so on — of a numeral Chukwu had written on the whiteboard.

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Along the way, the ladies also identified other ways in which math would be helpful on their imaginary journey: in cooking a meal before they left, in figuring out train fares and in the construction of the bridges the light rail runs under.

Quick student growth

Located in a former parochial school on East 38th Street in south Minneapolis, Friendship Academy is a charter school serving 125 impoverished, minority K-6 pupils. According to the state’s new Multiple Measures Rating (MMR), it is among the top 15 percent of high-poverty schools, and the 94th percentile of all Minnesota schools. Its students now make multiple years’ growth in a single year.  

Not long ago, however, the school was considered a persistent underperformer. So much so that a year and a half ago, its charter authorizer, Minneapolis Public Schools (MPS), announced it would not renew the school’s permission to operate.

In 2009, just 20 percent of its students were proficient in math and only 43 percent in reading. In 2012, 65 percent passed state math tests and 71 percent the reading exams — 22 and 12 points higher, respectively, than MPS as a whole.

What’s more, as state officials were posting Friendship’s gap-closing scores, education policymakers here and at the national level were contending with gloomy news concerning the effectiveness of school turnarounds, the dramatic restructurings persistent underperformers must undergo.

In November, a U.S. Department of Education analysis found that despite an infusion of $3 billion, a third of schools receiving its School Improvement Grants (SIG) actually saw test scores decline. Minnesota’s 19 SIG schools are no exception, posting small ticks up and down despite the receipt of $32 million [PDF].

Courage, autonomy, support

What does Friendship — which did not get any of the federal funding — have that they don’t? By all accounts, heaping doses of courage, autonomy and support.

“The fact of the matter is the adults in that building were very active learners,” said Joe Nathan, director of the Center for School Change (CSC), a St. Paul-based nonprofit that provided support to Friendship.

The story of the school’s about-face starts in 2009, when the state Legislature passed a law designed to increase accountability in the charter-school sector. Charter authorizers, previously referred to as sponsors, were made directly responsible for the operational and academic performance of their schools.

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Under fire from the Legislative Auditor for a history of lax oversight, the Minnesota Department of Education (MDE) would in turn increase its scrutiny of the authorizers. As the magnitude of the change became known, the number of groups willing to be authorizers decreased and many poor-performing schools scrambled to convince the remaining authorizers that they had a plan for stepping up their game.

Not an exception

Friendship was no exception. An outside consultant hired to evaluate all Minneapolis schools reported that those Friendship kids who were achieving were doing so despite the problems. With the increased scrutiny, its next reauthorization process was going to be an uphill slog.

If it had been a mainline district school, it would have been forced by federal law to select one of four “turnaround” models. MPS leaders, however, were grappling with a painful truth. Ranging from starting over with a wholly reconstituted staff to reopening under a new structure, the turnarounds were creating as much churn as progress.

Friendship’s board came up with its own 12-point plan. An EdD and a veteran of several gap-closing Twin Cities schools, Chukwu was brought in. She sat down with then-board member Nell Collier, a retired MPS principal with a storied track record of leadership, to look at student performance data indicating that less than a fourth of kids were proficient in math.  

“How could this just be sitting here?” Chukwu demanded to know. Didn’t the numbers upset anybody?

Collier had been asking similar questions throughout the school. “I was hearing excuses,” she said.  

Center for School Change support

The CSC began providing intensive academic support services and helped Friendship to secure a grant through Cargill’s LEAD for Charter Schools initiative that allowed school leaders to visit odds-beating charters in other cities, for technology and family involvement initiatives, among other things.

Test scores started to rise, but governance issues persisted. Ten of the board plan’s 12 points went unaddressed. Finally, in 2011 MPS announced it would not renew Friendship’s charter.

As the deadline approached, some members of the school community continued to point fingers elsewhere and talked of looking for a new authorizer. Others, however, began to consider the idea that they were, in fact, failing their kids.

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“Internally, I just kind of wanted to go home,” confessed current Board Chair Mary Riley. “Thinking of the children is what took me beyond myself.

“We needed to tear down being set in our ways about certain things,” Riley added. “We needed to look at all of the different things that could work.”

With CSC’s help, Friendship’s leaders convinced MPS that they were willing to dig in and do what they had said they would do. They created a chart detailing the 12 points and indicating, by coloring the various squares red, yellow or green, where they were in the process of fulfilling their own commitments.

‘Like watching a Las Vegas fight’

There was turnover on the board and the faculty — and hours of painful conversations. “It was like watching a Las Vegas fight,” said Chukwu. “A real beat-down.”

The focus on internal accountability convinced MPS’ Office of New Schools, the district’s authorizing wing, that the school community needed a chance to truly put its own plan into action. And so in contrast to the highly prescriptive turnaround plans, MPS put just two conditions on Friendship: It had to engineer some transitions on the board — a point of particular pain within the school community — and it had to create a partnership with the high-performing charter group of its choice and heed its advice.

The school contracted with Eric Mahmoud, founder of Harvest Prep and Seed Academy, among other gap-closing charter programs. Mahmoud wanted Collier to be more involved, so she resigned from the board and took a staff leadership role.

Chukwu wanted a longer school day — a logistical problem for MPS, which provided much of its transportation. Atrade was conjured: The district would give the school a coveted 8 a.m. bus slot in exchange for some of the detailed performance data its faculty had begun collecting.

Several strategies adopted

Part of the Cargill grant was used to buy computers. Students in grades 3 and 5 spend 90 minutes a day on them in the lab. One result is that teachers have a continual flow of data about each child’s performance. “You can see what strand is missing and go to address it right away,” said Chukwa.

 Students in grades 3 and 5 spend 90 minutes a day on them in the lab.
Courtesy of Friendship Academy
Students in grades 3 and 5 spend 90 minutes a day in the computer lab.

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Data-driven instruction is just one strategy the transformed school employs. Virtually all of its students live in homes where African-American English or Spanish is spoken, so its curriculum borrows from methods used to teach English-language learners.

Major effort has been put into family engagement, including a six-week Parent Academy and a focus on frequent outreach by teachers. The arts are incorporated throughout the curriculum, and hands-on project-based learning ensures relevance, including an annual wax museum project in which students take a deep dive into the backgrounds of prominent figures.

Shortly before the holiday break, 29 educators from local schools attended a literacy workshop Chukwu put on at the behest of the Center for School Change. The topic was strategies for helping kids who aren’t reading well get to grade level or beyond — quickly.

According to Nathan, 95 percent of those in attendance reported being thrilled with the workshop. One energized attendee immediately asked if she’d come present to the teachers at her school, too.

To Sara Paul, director of MPS’ Office of New Schools, the wholesale reversal in student test scores proves a couple of points. First, that it is possible — if painful — to propel outsized gains in proficiency in a very short period of time. And second, that “turnaround” — a term she’d just as soon excise from the education reform lexicon — has to happen organically to be meaningful.

“The sirens were already glaring,” said Paul. “They had the guts, they had the ingredients. … They did what they said they were going to do.”