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New challenges for Hiawatha as it prepares to open a high school

Here’s an irony about starting a charter school in impoverished parts of the Twin Cities of late: When you first go looking for students it’s as if there’s nothing but under-enrolled schools out there, competing for tiny scholars.

A few years later, when it’s time for your kindergarteners to go off to middle school or your eighth-graders to find a high school, the world suddenly starts to seem very small by comparison. Yes, there are oodles of empty seats out there — but few are good enough to be the next step on the road to college.

Case in point: Hiawatha Academies, which opened its first K-4 school in 2007 in south Minneapolis and its first middle school five years later. Those students are now mere months from graduating eighth grade, which makes it time to start getting ready to open Hiawatha Collegiate High School next fall.

Original plan was to 'scale up' more slowly

This wasn’t the plan until recently, according to the schools’ executive director, Eli Kramer. The plan was to “scale up” more slowly, opening five schools by 2020.

Two elementary and two middle schools would eventually feed one high school. The network would eventually serve 2,000 kids, or 5 percent of the city’s K-12 students.

(Learning Curve’s by now Standard Kramer Disclaimer: Eli Kramer is the son of MinnPost founders Joel and Laurie Kramer. Neither MinnPost Kramer was involved in the preparation of this story; they will see it at the same time as the site’s readers.)

A perennial fixture near the top of the list of Minnesota schools that achieve outsized results with an impoverished student body, in 2012 Hiawatha was declared the most successful school in the state.  When applications from many more hopeful families than it could accommodate, Hiawatha decided to open its third school a year early.

Academic offerings skyrocket

Even for an organization that’s gotten good at opening programs, creating a high school from the ground up is a particular challenge. The number of academic offerings requiring specialized instruction skyrocket even as offerings like college counseling, extracurricular activities and sports become more important.

Enter Nicole Cooley, Hiawatha’s current director of teaching and learning and a former dean and assistant principal at one of Chicago’s widely replicated Noble Street Charter Schools. Noble is well known for sending virtually all of its graduates on to higher education.

Cooley has a slight head start, with 60 students likely to continue from middle school and a reputation that should attract the other 44 that will meet her freshman recruiting goal.

Nicole Cooley
Hiawatha Academies
Nicole Cooley

And she has a vision. “High school in general is set up to be a big anonymous place,” said Cooley. “Which makes it likely for some people to make it and some to fall by the wayside. The way we envision it, it won’t be possible to fall through the cracks.”

There is growing research indicating that while high-performing schools can graduate and send all of their kids to college, completion rates lag. The strong, often hyper-disciplined cultures that drive high graduation rates are less successful teaching the self-agency skills students will need to continue succeeding on the outside.

“We can establish structures where kids can be leading to teach those things to each other, like being in clubs or sports,” said Cooley. “Some of those things happen actively, but some happen more organically.”

Students will begin and end their days with advisory periods in groups of 16 or 17. They will stay with the same adviser for four years, focusing on “soft skills.”

Painting a college picture for freshmen

High schools traditionally start talking about college in junior year. Hiawatha’s freshmen will attend a class on college that will begin to paint a picture of college in practical terms like potential earnings and its potential impact on a student’s family.

Cooley does not want students to advance until they have mastered all of their classes. Structures will be established to create consequences for students who do not complete homework or who need to recover credits.

Starting with a class dominated by students who are accustomed to Hiawatha’s high-expectations culture will help, but Kramer is also anticipating newcomers may ease the “cohort fatigue” that can set in when small groups of kids have been together for years.

Looking forward to 'newbies'

“I’m actually really excited about incorporating 40 newbies,” he said. “We clearly have some eighth-graders who are leaders and some who are leaders and could benefit from other leaders.”

Kramer’s decision to take on the challenge four years early came in the wake of the recent release of a new set of state data showing how many graduates from each Minnesota high school enroll in college and how many finish.

A majority of the students Hiawatha serves live in the attendance zone for Roosevelt High School, which had Minneapolis Public Schools’ lowest overall college-completion rate. In 2012, 58 percent of students graduated; 10 percent of graduates go on to earn a degree from a four-year institution.

“That lined up really well with what we heard when we asked parents,” said Kramer. “The resounding response was, ‘That’s not what we signed up for. We want a Hiawatha high school for our students.”

Opening any school is a matter of economies of scale. State funding follows students, who do not necessarily enroll in the multiples that will ensure enough money to hire the desired number of teachers or to pay the lease on a building.

Enrollment is up this year at two new north Minneapolis high schools, a redesigned North High and the charter Minneapolis College Prep, that struggled in their first two years to attract a critical mass of students.

In part because of the state’s complicated and controversial charter lease aid law, Minneapolis College Prep fell behind on its rent. Its landlord is the district, which chose not to evict the otherwise successful program.

The director of Math and Science Academy in Woodbury, Bob Kreischer was the founder of Mounds Park Academy and has consulted with other fledgling high schools and K-12 programs.

His first word of advice to even successful school leaders looking to “age up” with their students is often “don’t.”

Challenges are different

“Even with a small school you have to have more choices than for a middle school,” he said. “You end up with a larger faculty than you should be able to hire.”

The higher the grade level the more specialized academics become, Kreischer explained. That in turn means a teacher is less likely to be certified to teach more than one subject.

Add to this competitive Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate programming and extracurriculars that aren’t actually so extra in the eyes of college admissions types.

And finally, money must be found to pay for college counseling — something Kramer and Kreischer both insist must start in ninth grade — as well as the equipment needed to facilitate high school offerings like chemistry.

There are tricks to easing these growing pains, Kreischer continued. Fortuitously, eighth-grade specialists often can also teach ninth-grade classes, which allows a cash-strapped principal to enroll a second cohort before starting to beef up staff.

Another potential efficiency may be possible if year one can take place in a portion of a building already occupied by another program or a network’s lower grades.

Hiawatha’s second and third schools opened in existing buildings and moved, though the goal in both instances was partly to graft the established programs’ cultures onto the new ones.

It would be “premature” to talk about where Hiawatha’s high school could open, said Kramer. More important, from his vantage, is having the capacity to “go long” on hiring, which means there is fundraising in his future.

“The business of running schools is about people,” said Kramer. “If you can find the right people to grow you’re going to be able to grow quickly.”

Cooley couldn’t agree more. “You don’t actually need a building,” she said. “You need a community.”

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