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Arch Academy’s leaders listening, persuading as they build new school community

By the time Arch Academy opens in August, Angela Boone Mansfield will have walked virtually every block of south Minneapolis in search of students.

woman shaking child's hand
Courtesy of Arch Academy
Arch Academy founder Angela Boone Mansfield just needs one more thing to make her charter school a reality: students.

By the time Arch Academy opens its doors in August, Angela Boone Mansfield will have walked virtually every block of south Minneapolis in search of the ingredient that’s hardest for any new school to secure: students.

She’s spent the last two years jumping hoop after hoop to make her vision for Arch a reality. She’s convinced a charter school authorizer to buy into that vision, put together a board, acquired startup financing, a building and staff who have other, better-paid opportunities.

But students? That’s an entirely different proposition. One that involves persuading a parent with options — lackluster though they may be — to entrust you with the thing they treasure the most.

You don’t have a track record. No one’s talking you up on the parent grapevine. And unlike a middle or high school, if you’re starting by serving kindergartners through third graders, you can’t form a relationship with a “feeder” school. 

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Mansfield’s answer: “I speak smile.”

And English, Spanish, Portuguese, French, Somali and Arabic. In between sampling school lunches, begging for donations of furniture and designing curriculum, Manfield’s newly recruited team literally has been pounding the pavement.

They’ve knocked on doors, chatted up merchants, hosted house parties and attended neighborhood events. They describe the school and answer questions.

Listening to parents

But more than that, they listen. Parents — and particularly parents of the very young children who will be Arch’s first scholars — are full of hopes and aspirations for their kids. And they want to know that the grownups in the school share those dreams. 

Which is where “speaking smile” comes in. Possessed of a seemingly bottomless font of energy and a dazzling grin, Mansfield is fluent. She knows she is asking mothers and fathers to make a leap of faith.

“We don’t do a good job figuring out what makes parents tick,” she says. “We have to recognize what parents bring to the table and leverage that.”

The daughter of a Minneapolis Public Schools teacher and principal, Mansfield is an unlikely charter-school founder. “I fought tooth and nail with everyone who said I should be a teacher,” she says.

Still, after college, she found herself earning teaching credentials through the University of St. Thomas’ Collaborative Urban Educator Program, the same alternative certification program that helped MPS Superintendent Bernadeia Johnson make the transition from banker to teacher.

Won Milken Award

She spent six years at the now-shuttered Lincoln Community School on Minneapolis’ near north side. At Elizabeth Hall in her seventh year, Mansfield won a prestigious Milken Educator Award.  

Designed to help early- to mid-career teachers develop their potential, the national honor comes with $25,000. A passionate literacy advocate, Mansfield next spent four years working as a district literacy coordinator helping teachers learn strategies to ensure that all kids are reading by third grade.

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When the Reading First grant that was supporting her work ran out, she went to work as a teacher mentor in three MPS elementary schools. But seven years of trying to share successful tactics a single teacher at a time was starting to feel like an uphill battle. 

“I was a little frustrated with the slow pace of change,” Mansfield says. “I knew that I had to broaden my view of education. For me, a district employee and the daughter of a MPS teacher, it caused me to do some reflection.”

A move to the charter sector — anathema to many traditionally prepared teachers — had never occurred to her. But she was encountering the same systemic problems over and over. 

“I’ll be honest, I called it going to the dark side.”

Became a CSP fellow

She applied for a fellowship from Charter School Partners, a program that incubates high-performing charters. As a fellow, she could start a new school or she could help turn around a failing one.

Mansfield chose the former. “I had been trying to turn things around for so long,” she explains.

She spent the first year of the two-year fellowship working on community. She’d spent her teaching career on the city’s north side, where schools are frequently hyper-segregated.

One of the criticisms that’s frequently leveled at many Twin Cities high-performing charters is that they end up serving homogenous populations. As public schools, charters must serve any student who applies for admission. If they have more applicants than seats, admission must be done by lottery.

In practice, however, schools often end up drawing from a particular population. By design an Afrocentric curriculum may attract black students, for example. Or, made to feel welcome, a particular immigrant community fills a school by word of mouth.

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Not only can’t charters invite certain kids to leave in order to admit others, the first goal of CSP’s network of high performers is to bridge the gap between where impoverished minority students start out and where they need to be to ensure they graduate from college.

(A by-now-standard Kramer Disclaimer: CSP employs Katie Barrett Kramer, daughter-in-law of MinnPost founders Joel and Laurie Kramer. Barrett Kramer oversees the fellows program and recruited Mansfield. Neither MinnPost Kramer was involved in assigning or editing this story.)

Vision includes integration

Mansfield grew up on Minneapolis’ south side, where schools are more diverse. Biracial and raising a biracial family of her own, she had great memories of going to school in integrated MPS programs.

The deeper she dug into demographic data, the more she saw that although south-side schools might be diverse, the gaps between different racial and socioeconomic groups’ achievement were profound.

Arch will share many of the gap-closing strategies employed by schools in the CSP portfolio, including longer school days and years, continuous use of real-time data and a no-excuses culture. 

If Mansfield was going to be true to herself, she realized, her vision for her school had to include integration. At that moment, the rest of the pieces fell into place.

“This is what I am meant to do,” says Mansfield. “This is not just an Oprah moment.”

One of the lessons learned by other efforts to open charters that are high-performing from the start is that communities reject efforts that are perceived as attempts by outsiders to parachute in with an inorganic solution.

So the first step of Mansfield’s outreach effort was listening. As she met with community groups to learn what they wanted from a new school, she also recruited a diverse board. And then she started seeking out parents.

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Aiming for 200 students

In addition to the vision, student recruitment is a numbers game. Students bring the state tuition dollars that pay for teachers. Too few students and you can’t hire enough teachers.

Too many? That’s a problem Mansfield would like to have. She’s aiming for 200 pupils. As of now, she has 125.

One of CSP’s most successful programs, Hiawatha Leadership Academies, this year had to turn down 20 percent of applicants to its two schools for the 2013-2014 school year.

Because its track record boosts recruiting, the program responded by accelerating a long-term plan to open a third school. It had 78 incoming kindergartners out of the gate.

woman with young students
Courtesy of Arch Academy
Emily Smith joined Arch as director of finance and operations.

Earlier this spring, former teacher Emily Smith joined Arch as director of finance and operations. The biggest part of speaking smile, she says, is convincing families that the school will value their kids as much as they do.

“Parents show up at organizing meetings and open houses busting to talk about their kids,” Smith says. “What we need to say is, ‘We want you here.’ ” And they need to say it one kid at a time, and to different ethic and racial groups.

One family at a time

At MPS’ January school-choice fair, one mother in particular kept circling back to Arch’s booth.

“She had question after question,” Smith recalls. “Finally she said, ‘OK, you know what? You’re at the top of my list. Let me know when you get your building.”

They kept in touch, e-mailing whenever they could. And when Arch acquired a building — the program will open a few blocks off of Hiawatha Avenue at 3216 E. 29th St. — the mom showed up at the open house with more questions.

“Now this child is a symbol,” says Smith. “Her mom wants someone to listen.”

The girl’s father rolled his eyes and opined that the decision to enroll had been made a long time before. But Mansfield just kept answering the woman’s questions — and smiling.