Forget falling enrollment, a yawning achievement gap and draconian budgetary realities for the moment, because Minneapolis Public Schools may be on the brink of the biggest challenge to confront the district in years.
In coming weeks, school board members are poised to vote on proposals to create two schools that would operate largely outside the district bureaucracy.
One, a K-12 science program to open in 2011, would be operated by a nonprofit charter management organization headquartered in Chicago. The other, a K-5 French immersion school to open this fall, would be run by the teachers who staff it.
Both would be located on the city’s North Side, long home to some of the district’s poorest-performing schools.
The schools are the first to be put forward by the brand-new Office of New Schools, part of a district initiative to address the lowest-performing 25 percent of its schools. Creating a department to push for innovative new types of schools was one of the ideas suggested two years ago by McKinsey & Co. as a part of its package of recommendations for school reform.
Starting over from the ground up
In addition to bigger-picture reforms, the consultants said, the district should encourage innovation by starting programs from the ground up. Because the school system has long been criticized as bureaucratic, rigid and hierarchical, administrators should ask outsiders to create the new schools, they suggested.
The idea met with enthusiastic support from the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers, school board members and state lawmakers, who last session passed a law giving school boards more freedom to create new kinds of schools. With the new law in place, a committee of district, union and community members last spring invited proposals for new schools, eventually awarding grant funds from the state to four groups to allow them to work up full-scale proposals over the summer.
The applicants had help from Education Evolving, a St. Paul-based think tank that advocates new forms of school governance, particularly “teacher-owned” schools where classroom educators are in charge of everything from the day’s lesson plan to school policy.
Last fall, two top contenders emerged; if approved, each would be the first of its kind in Minnesota. The Minnesota School of Science would begin serving students in kindergarten through sixth grade, most likely in one of the North Side schools shuttered in recent years, adding a grade each year until becoming a K-12 program.
Legally, the school would be a hybrid of sorts. Much as any entity seeking to create a charter school, the district would apply for a state charter and then sign a contract with Concept Schools, which operates similar math-and-science-focused charter schools in other parts of the Midwest.
“At one time, the district looked at charters as the enemy,” said Bob Wedl, the consultant provided by Education Evolving who also has served as a former state education commissioner. He’s also the district’s retired director of planning and policy.
“We talk about school choice for parents, but school boards have choices, too,” said Wedl. “Their job is to develop or put into place the kinds of schools kids really need.”
New law makes Minnesota a national leader
Thanks to the new law, “Minnesota school boards have more choices than anywhere else in the nation,” he said.
The other proposed new school would be a radical departure for the district as well. The Pierre Bottineau French Immersion School would share the Jordan Park elementary school building with the district’s Hmong International Academy. It would open next fall with three kindergarten and two first-grade classrooms and expand gradually over five years to serve 375 pupils in grades K-5. Eventually, students as young as 3 could enroll in the immersion school, significantly increasing their chances of academic success.
The school is the brainchild of a group of district teachers who hope to run it under a unique contract with the district and union. The teachers were inspired by research that shows that immersion in a second language can accelerate learning by the pupils who typically struggle the most. On average, by age 4, children from low-income homes are exposed to 13 million fewer words than their working-class peers and 33 million fewer than children of professionals.
“To us, the value of the immersion education is all about overcoming ‘word poverty,’ ” explained JoEllyn Jolstad, a parent and community liaison at the district’s Bryn Mawr Elementary and Anwatin Middle School. “We’re trying to go into a high-poverty area.”
“In immersion, children have to pay attention,” she explained. “They can’t rely on their secondary brain. They are truly engaged.”
In addition, there is evidence that when all of the children in a school learn a language at the same time, the playing field is leveled considerably. “Standard American English being the dominant language of society often causes children to feel that their home languages are inferior to the standard spoken at school,” the group explained in its application.
“African American children in particular would benefit from learning experiences demonstrating how languages spring from many roots and differ because they grow out of a variety of environments and historical influence.”
French is spoken in many of the places African-American kids’ ancestors came from, including vast swaths of Africa and the Caribbean. “And there are some [other] benefits that are specific to immersion in French,” she added. “It’s unique in its similarities and its commonalities to English.”
In their application, Jolstad and her colleagues noted that Milwaukee has a French immersion school that outperforms the rest of the district by 30 percent. “Immersion education has 30 years of demonstrated effectiveness,” she said.
In addition to being a district employee and a member of its world language steering committee, Jolstad is the parent of three students in the district. She and three of her colleagues spent last summer putting together their 133-page application.
Co-operatives composed of teachers have run charter schools in Minnesota since 1994, when New Country School — best known as the school whose students discovered deformed frogs — opened in Henderson. New Country has served as the inspiration for numerous other “teacher-owned” schools throughout the country, including Avalon, a St. Paul charter.
In structure, Minneapolis’ first self-governed school would resemble teacher-led programs in the Milwaukee public schools, where the teachers in charge of the new schools retain their union seniority and district benefits like their colleagues but work under a contract that makes them responsible for their schools.
At the moment, education policy nationwide is focused on improving the quality of teaching. One way to do that, Education Evolving’s researchers believe, is to give teachers more control over the strategies they use to reach kids who are struggling.
The organization likens schools where teachers run the show to the professional partnerships enjoyed by lawyers, accountants and doctors. (More information about teacher-owned schools can be found in an article I wrote last year for Education Next, an education policy journal.)
“We need to make teaching a better job,” said Wedl. “We think this model, where the teacher has more control over their work, is key.”
Critics counter that the model isn’t inherently superior, and note that test scores at teacher-run schools are all over the map. In those cases where the self-governed schools are beating the odds with challenging student populations, the answer might have more to do with the teacher-leaders’ ability to select an appropriate approach, such as language immersion, or to fine-tune their tactics in the classroom.
Education policy scholars have also questioned whether the schools’ highly democratic leadership structure can be sustained over time. Some of Milwaukee’s early teacher-led schools collapsed because teachers had a hard time fitting the administrative work into their already packed schedules.
Minneapolis teachers union praised
Wedl credited the leaders of the Minneapolis teachers union with steadily advocating for new schools with district brass. “The union has really been champing at the bit to do more,” he said. “Because of the MFT [Minneapolis Federation of Teachers] Minneapolis is probably in a better position than anywhere in the country to do this.”
As a charter, the Minnesota School of Science would get start-up money from the federal government. Ongoing operations would be paid for by the state.
The Minneapolis district would provide start-up funding for the self-governed school. Under the new state law authorizing the schools, state money would follow each student directly to the new program’s bank account. “This gives it virtually the same operational control as a charter school,” explained Jon Bacal, executive director of the district’s Office of New Schools.
The board is scheduled to discuss the new schools at a retreat this weekend. If board members decide to move forward, they will then vote at a regular meeting, most likely in early March.
If the programs ultimately are approved, the district likely will consider proposals for others to open in 2011. New schools under discussion include a site-governed arts high school, a college prep high school and a high school with a partnership with the University of Minnesota’s design department.
The district’s board and administration deserve praise for fomenting revolution in the ranks, Wedl said. “The new schools might look different from the ones they went to school in,” he said. “That’s going to require some risk-taking.”
Beth Hawkins writes about education and other topics.