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Student’s turnaround mirrors that of his school, Friendship Academy

The south Minneapolis public charter last week posted the highest math scores of any high-poverty school in the metro area.

Diedier Attipou, center, with Friendship Academy Executive Director Nell Collier, left, and Academic Director Datrica Chukwu, right.
MinnPost photo by Beth Hawkins

Didier Attipou met the president of the United States last month. The experience of standing next to the first African-American to hold the office and of imagining the work it took to get there inspired Attipou to rethink his own goals.

Attipou is 10. He has a beguiling smile, perfect manners and a vocabulary that outpaces your average graduate student’s.

Last year he earned all As and Bs, as well as a reputation for helping classmates find their focus in tough moments. His leadership qualities earned him his trip to the conference in Washington, D.C., where he met the president.

Barack Obama’s handshake was firm, he reports: “He was just calm.” 

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And Attipou? “I was just standing there shaking,” he recalled the other day. “I had to come up with something to ask him because I couldn’t just stand there shaking his hand. I settled on where did his family live before the White House.”

The president responded in kind, asking the Brooklyn Park resident how he was enjoying the Junior National Youth Leadership Conference (recently rechristened Foundations of Leadership).

ID’d as behaviorally challenged

It was not always thus. By fourth grade, Attipou had been identified as behaviorally challenged by the suburban parochial school he used to attend. Immigrants from Togo, his parents turned in desperation to an educator who attends their parish.

Datrica Chukwu knew from experience that even appropriate assertiveness can get African-American boys in trouble. And she knew from attending functions that Attipou’s old school was quicker to recognize girls’ accomplishments.

“Didier knows what he knows,” says Chukwu, academic director of the boy’s new school, Friendship Academy of the Arts. “He’s not afraid to interject what he knows.”

Quick gains

Last year, Attipou made more than two years’ academic gains. His first year in his new school he came within five points of exceeding grade-level expectations in math and placed well beyond proficient on the state’s tough new reading assessment.

In some ways, his turnaround isn’t nearly as remarkable as the one that occurred at Friendship, the south Minneapolis public charter that last week posted the highest math scores of any high-poverty school in the metro area.

Almost 72 percent of Friendship students tested passed the 2013 math test, compared to 61 percent statewide. Only 32 percent passed a new reading test pegged to the higher and more complex Common Core Standard, vs. 58 percent statewide. 

Disappointing as the second figure is, the school’s backers say its trajectory is proof that it is possible to ratchet up both student and school success in a short period of time.

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Serves 125 students

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. In 2009, just 20 percent of Friendship’s students were proficient in math and only 43 percent in reading.

In an effort to make it harder for underperforming charters to stay open, that same year the Legislature passed the nation’s first charter accountability law. Charter authorizers were made responsible for the performance of the schools in their portfolios for the first time, with the state Department of Education assuming responsibility for monitoring the authorizers’ quality.

Minneapolis Public Schools (MPS) began pushing Friendship to do better. The school’s board came up with a 12-point plan that included contracting with the Center for School Change for support and making some leadership changes.

Nell Collier, a longtime MPS principal with a storied track record, was coaxed off of the school’s board and into a leadership position. Chukwu was hired. Test scores started to rise.

Governance problems remained, however, and in 2011 MPS announced it would not renew Friendship’s charter. While some on the board talked about looking for a new authorizer — a dance lots of struggling schools were engaging in — others started looking within.

Risks all around

Both sides took a big risk. MPS told the school that it could create its own turnaround plan with two conditions: There needed to be transitions on the board and the program needed to partner with a successful charter operator.

Friendship chose Eric Mahmoud, founder of Harvest Prep and other high-performing Minneapolis schools. He demanded Collier play a more prominent role.

The risk for the school: Trusting that the failures it unearthed in the painful process would not be used to strengthen the case against it.

In addition to creating a six-week “parent academy” to get families on board with the amount of work required in making more than a year’s progress at a time, the school and its advisers got serious about data.

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Among other things, students now spend 90 minutes a day in a computer lab paid for with a grant from Cargill. The computers supply real-time feedback on where every child in the building is so gaps can be plugged before they begin to widen.

Ongoing coaching vs. a workshop

“Data drives our staff development,” adds Chukwu. “It unearths the areas where teachers need support.” Crucially, much of that support is “job-embedded” — ongoing coaching in the classroom, vs. a one-time workshop.

And teachers use the data to isolate successful techniques worth copying. The numbers show, for instance, that the fifth- and sixth-grade teachers get the most outsized gains in math.

One teacher in particular is adept at noticing when some students aren’t captivated by the lesson she planned and recovering the same material in a different way — a strategy known as differentiation. Her tricks are now being shared schoolwide.

In 2012, 65 percent of the school’s students passed state math tests and 71 percent the reading exams — 22 and 12 points higher, respectively, than MPS as a whole. At the behest of the Center for School Change, Friendship has held workshops attended by teachers from all types of schools.

Chukwu began checking for results at 6 a.m. Aug. 27, the day the most recent round of Minnesota Comprehensive Assessments were released. She was so upset by the dip in reading scores that at first she didn’t notice the victory in math. Early morning calls to Mahmoud — whose schools also saw smaller drops — and Collier got her focused on revisiting the plan — again.

Challenging standards

The new state language arts standards require students to think critically, draw inferences and engage in nimbler, more creative problem-solving. Their creators argue that they are a better, more holistic measure of the skills students need to master to keep Minnesota’s work-force competitive. They are also much more challenging to teach.

His own reading performance off the charts, Attipou cheered the test scores without hesitation. When he got home, he took his father the chart in the Star Tribune showing Friendship scoring highest in math among impoverished schools.

“I was so happy,” says Attipou. “I saw him reading it and I said, ‘That’s my school.’ My school is No. 1. You can’t beat us.”

Which is good, since the almost-11-year-old has added a life goal to his list, which until this summer consisted of becoming a successful engineer. He’d still like to go into engineering, but at some point Attipou also would like to be president.