At the height of school-choice season, here’s a curious paradox for your consideration: Despite all of the attention paid to one of the nation’s worst racial and socioeconomic achievement gaps, there are unfilled seats in proven and promising Minneapolis schools that are struggling to recruit low-income students.
Residents of affluent neighborhoods typically have access to one or more schools where students routinely post good test scores. And the number of high-achieving schools in working-class parts of the city has increased dramatically in recent years.
But the schools, both mainline district programs and new charters, are struggling with enrollment. The reams of data collected on schools are rarely presented in a user-friendly form; low-income families frequently have no idea the range of options in their neighborhoods.
“You can’t just build it and they will come,” said Al Fan, executive director of Charter School Partners (CSP), a nonprofit seeking to increase access to seats in high-quality Twin Cities schools. “It’s important to start educating parents about academic performance.”
An interactive map
To try to bridge the chasm, CSP has created a first-of-its-kind interactive map to help parents understand schools’ academic quality. Users type in a ZIP code at MinneapolisSchoolFinder.org to get a simple visual guide to which local schools, district and charter, are achieving strong growth with struggling students, and which are not.
The idea for the school comparison site was born in the wake of a CSP analysis undertaken a year ago. The group looked at the state’s Multiple Measurements Ratings system, the Department of Education’s widely lauded mechanism for identifying schools that get outsized results for challenged kids.
(Full disclosure: CSP’s Director of Academic Excellence Katie Barrett Kramer is the daughter-in-law of MinnPost founders Joel and Laurie Kramer. Neither of them was involved in editing this story.)
As a district MPS provides lots of information about its schools, hosts tours and a holds an annual school choice fair. It has made huge strides over the last couple of years in terms of family engagement.
Still, CSP’s parent focus groups revealed gaps. There was no online parallel for charters, and no easy way to probe their quality. Parents wanted to be able to search all schools, regardless of their management structure, by academic performance and location.
“There was nothing online for parents to allow them to see all of the public options in Minneapolis,” said Fan.
Top 40% in having high impact
Using the state data, CSP identified the Minneapolis schools that are among the top 40 percent in the state in terms of having a high impact on student achievement. Just 14 percent of the city’s K-12 seats are located in the high-impact schools.
Meanwhile more than two-thirds of Minneapolis’ nearly 28,000 low-income kids attend low-impact schools — those that score in the bottom 25 percent statewide. The remaining fourth attend schools in the middle.
The site does not include data about private schools, programs that are too small to comply with state reporting requirements, virtual charters or some specialized Minneapolis Public Schools (MPS) programs.
Schools in the bottom quartile appear on the school finder in red, the schools in the middle in yellow and the top programs in green. New schools are marked in blue. Each of the established programs has rating on a scale of 1-100 that corresponds to the state’s Multiple Measurements Rating.
If a parent clicks through to a school denoted in red or yellow, they will see demographic and academic information about that school and a link to its website. But they will also be offered the names of other, higher-impact schools in the area.
Established and new district and charter-school alternatives will also appear on the pages of schools denoted in green or blue. In those instances more information and options for exploring enrollment will be offered, too.
Beyond proficiency gauge
Traditionally school performance has been gauged by the percentage of students who score proficient on standardized tests in math, science and reading. Crude proficiency isn’t a terribly helpful number, however, as it reveals only the number of students performing at grade level.
Minnesota’s relatively new ratings system takes into account a school’s progress toward closing the gap between racial and socioeconomic subgroups, as well as data on how many students who start out behind make more than a year’s progress during an academic year.
“It sounds very wonkish and technical,” said Fan. But the system “gives schools credit for students who are not proficient but who are making high levels of growth.”
Because three years of data is required, new schools — charter and district — don’t show up in the state rankings at all. While each has its own identity and curricular focus, most employ strategies proven effective by the high-impact schools.
These programs in particular are having a hard time enrolling enough students to provide the level of staffing and services desired. In December, MPS’ first site-governed school, Pierre Bottineau French Immersion in north Minneapolis, was briefly threatened with closure because it lost students.
Language immersion is a proven gap-closing strategy and the program got high marks from parents. But 17 students translates to $100,000 in basic state aid.
Nearby Minneapolis College Prep posted enviable college-readiness scores after its first year, but did not appear in the state’s quality-rating database alongside suburban high schools that open-enroll large numbers of Minneapolis kids. Its freshman cohort this year is at 75 percent of capacity.
Over the summer on the city’s south side, leaders of the brand-new Arch Academy literally went door-to-door explaining what would make their school special. Because it launched with kindergarteners through third-graders, Arch could not recruit from lower-grade, high-impact programs.
MPS’ deadline for priority school placement requests is Friday, Feb. 28. And the district will of course find a child a seat at any time when one is needed.
But many of the undersubscribed, high-impact schools on the map enroll students on a rolling basis and will continue to recruit for the 2014-2015 school year through next fall.
“The hope is [parents] will call, that they’ll be empowered to ask questions and go visit,” said Fan. “As a community and a movement we have got to create demand.”