In 2007 if you were a hopeful charter operator and you wanted to open a school, the one place you couldn’t look for space was Minneapolis Public Schools’ list of shuttered buildings.
Near the bottom of an enrollment exodus, the district was holding onto vacant classrooms that once served 10,000 children. Applicants to lease them had to prove that they would use the building to better the lives of Minneapolis families — without competing with the district.
Vacant since 2005, South Minneapolis’ Northrop was among half a dozen mothballed schools that seemed doomed to languish on the district’s “excess inventory” list. Potential tenants that ticked every box were scarce, never mind that keeping the buildings in salable condition cost money MPS didn’t have.
The intervening eight short years have been packed with change. Next fall, the Northrop building will welcome a class of kindergarteners enrolled by Hiawatha Leadership Academies, a group of high-performing charter schools with a track record of academic success with disadvantaged learners. Eventually, the school will serve kindergarteners through fourth-graders.
Several levels of symbolism
The Minneapolis School Board’s decision last week to sell the 13-classroom facility to an intermediary representing Hiawatha is symbolic on several levels.
There’s the sale of the actual building to what was not long ago considered a rival.
Beyond that, however, the decision portends the start of an era of district-charter collaboration. “It’s time to partner with people who get results,” said Sara Paul, director of the district’s Office of New Schools. “It’s time to partner with people who know what quality looks like.”
In the spring of 2012, Hiawatha was declared the most successful school in the state. Last fall, the number of applications began mushrooming and Executive Director Eli Kramer decided to open a planned third school a year early to accommodate all the families seeking seats.
(Standard Kramer Disclaimer, aka full disclosure: Eli Kramer is the son of MinnPost Editor and CEO Joel Kramer and Chief Revenue Officer Laurie Kramer.)
Oversubscribed for the next year
In years past, Hiawatha’s leaders would still be recruiting their incoming fall class in June, said Kramer. Late last year, they were already so oversubscribed for the 2013-2014 academic year that they would have to turn away 20 percent of applicants.
Applications would continue to roll in. And Hiawatha had a plan to open five schools in coming years. After opening in 2011-2012 the second, middle school Adelante College Prep, was successful enough to move into its own building, a former Catholic school.
Plans to open up a second elementary school were moved up a year. Both Hiawatha Morris Park and Hiawatha Northrop are on track to enroll 78 kindergarteners apiece next fall.
Thanks in part to passage of a 2012 law allowing district-charter collaboration, Kramer was already in conversations with MPS when the request for proposals for Northrop went out. (A state law many would like to see repealed prevents charters from leasing their buildings from their authorizers.)
Wowed by a presentation on the new era [PDF] of partnership, a majority of the board voted to sell. Hussein Samatar voted against the proposal. Alberto Monserrate and Josh Reimnitz abstained. Monserrate used to serve on Hiawatha’s board and Reimnitz’ partner Daniela Vasan has been selected to head the new school.
A number of those who voted for the proposal have been more conservative in the past. None was willing to force a cohort of needy kids to wait for the turnaround of existing schools — a slow and uncertain process at best.
Twenty years ago when Minnesota passed the nation’s first chartering law, there were several goals. Among them was the creation of quality alternatives for families dissatisfied with their mainline public school options and a belief that autonomy would spark innovation in education.
Reams have been written on how well those aims were or were not met in charters’ first two decades. But what is increasingly clear to a number of educators and policymakers from both camps — use of the word is deliberate — is that a small but growing cadre of odds-beating charters have pinpointed strategies that can be put into place in virtually any school.
In the moments before the board’s Northrop vote, Paul and MPS Associate Superintendent Mark Bonine, walked its members through a presentation outlining what collaboration looks like.
If school-level teachers are to be held accountable they must also have autonomy, they said. And regardless of the type of school those educators work in, the district should function as their partner.
What does that look like in practice? The same year MPS began seriously considering that excess inventory Hiawatha opened its first K-4 program in an old parochial school on the south side. Virtually all of its students were, and still are, impoverished minorities. Many do not speak English at home.
When the second cohort of kindergarteners reached third grade, the age when the first standardized state tests were administered, the results were eye-popping. Scores were nearly twice those of other schools in the same neighborhood and higher than district averages.
The class’ 69 percent passage rate in math was one point below the state average; the 66 percent reading score trailed statewide scores by 12 percent. The following year, 81 percent of fifth-graders scored proficient in math, vs. 62 percent statewide; 84 percent read at or above grade level, vs. 79 percent.
The school’s leaders aren’t satisfied, but they are convinced that scores will go up as they have more kids from an earlier age and for more years. Other tests Hiawatha routinely administers showed that its students make anywhere from a year and a half to two years’ growth each year.
Meanwhile, the state Department of Education was busy overhauling its school-ratings system to account for poverty, multiple years’ growth and other factors not previously considered. Last spring, Hiawatha appeared at the top of the rolls.
Harvest Prep, Best Academy and other high-performing charters hovered near the top of the list. MPS also had begun chartering its own schools, including Minneapolis College Prep, and sealed a deal with Harvest Prep’s founder to open four new schools over the next 10 years.
Autonomy with accountability
The district also charters Friendship Academy, a school whose wholesale, rapid turnaround embodies the autonomy-with-accountability formula Paul and MPS envision.
Although each is unique, the high-performers share some characteristics, many of which are cataloged in a voluminous report put together under the aegis of the African American Leadership Forum. Longer school days and years mean 40 percent more “seat time”; the continuous use of quizzes and on-the-fly formative assessments allows teachers to plug small gaps before kids fall behind; and the expectation is that none will, backgrounds notwithstanding.
The same scrutiny is being applied to successful mainline district schools, Paul said. “We’re trying to go through and see what each is doing that works,” she explained. “We’re holding up an example of what quality is.”
Happy as he is about the new building and about not having to turn kids away, Kramer is happier about the possibility for cross-pollination. “Hiawatha Academies knows it’s not going to educate all 35,000 MPS kids,” he said. “But we are in this work for more than the 2,000 kids who will eventually be enrolled in our five schools.
“Now is the time in this city,” Kramer added. “We’ve got the leadership in the district, we’ve got a board that gets it. We can change the conversation from one of school type to one of school quality.”