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An unfortunate case study in what's wrong with inflexible education reform: Brooklyn Center

At 7:30 tonight, on the football field at Brooklyn Center High School, Bryan Bass will hand out diplomas. There will be gold and silver tassels for honors graduates, bittersweet embraces and lots of "Centaur" purple.

Bass will return to the building on Friday along with the rest of the staff, but holding the graduation ceremony will be one of the last things he does as principal.

He might be popular, energetic and able to point to a hefty list of on-the-job achievements, but Bass has been fired.

No Child Left Behind inflexibility
The back-story could serve as a case study for much of what's wrong with the politically rigid beast that is modern American education reform and some of the inflexibility built into the nation's No Child Left Behind efforts. 

Brooklyn Center High School serves more than 800 students in grades seven through 12. Although it is a suburban school, three-fourths of students are low-income and minorities. Up to one-fourth are learning English, and about 14 percent have learning disabilities.

Bryan Bass
Bryan Bass

Because too few of those disadvantaged students have passed standardized tests for three consecutive years (PDF), George Bush's controversial No Child Left Behind reform requires that the principal and half the teachers be replaced.

If that sounds reasonable, it's only half the story.

Drawn by a strong arts magnet focus and International Baccalaureate status, a third of Brooklyn Center High's students choose to go there under open enrollment. It boasts an 82 percent graduation rate, enviable among districts with similar demographics. 

During the four years Bass has been principal, the number of suspensions each month has fallen from 45 to about 10. The number of graduates who go on to post-secondary education has doubled from 35 percent to 70 percent. Student mobility — which roughly correlates to the dropout rate — has fallen from 33 percent to 26 percent.

Perhaps most notable — thanks to the zealous efforts of Bass' boss — Superintendent Keith Lester, one wing of the school was recently turned into a one-stop medical and social service center equipped to care for any school-age Brooklyn Center resident or student, or the sibling of one. Insured or not, students have access to dental, vision, mental health and medical services.

Experiment gets lots of attention
The goal of the experiment, which has attracted the attention of other Minnesota school districts with large numbers of struggling students, is to eliminate as many barriers as possible to student performance.

In part because the district's finances are so bad — it has $2 million in operating debt and receives $2,000 to $3,000 less funding per pupil than Minneapolis and St. Paul — Lester had long taken advantage of every community partnership he could.

About four years ago, he decided it was time to start finding partners who would help work to eliminate barriers to student achievement that were not traditionally considered schools' problems. He was sitting at a meeting of organizations that deal with children's issues when someone started talking about the need for a community clinic in northwest Hennepin County.

"If I've got the rooms, can you bring the clinic?" he asked. Students started receiving services right away, but Lester wanted a dedicated facility with its own entrance in the building.

Keith Lester
Keith Lester

He started working the phones seeking donations of time and materials. Last winter, after a wholesale remodeling that extended water and sewer lines to the southwest wing of the high school building, a clinic was born (PDF).

Alumni, contractors who work with the district and the Park Nicollet Foundation donated $260,000 in cash and construction work. Park Nicollet is donating medical services, Children's Dental Services is providing dental care and other agencies are providing mental health care and immunizations.

When it turned out that 70 percent of kids who have had physicals so far have had untreated vision problems, Park Nicollet contributed eye exams and glasses. Teachers who realize a student is acting out because of emotional issues now quietly help the student find a therapist at the clinic.

Portico Healthnet has an office in the clinic where staff can work with students' families to help them find health insurance. If they can't, the clinic treats them anyhow.

The impact was felt immediately. "Overnight — overnight, it absolutely decreased the amount of behavioral issues," said Bass. "By eliminating barriers, you start to really understand what's in the way of students getting to learn."

Similar experiments with so-called community schools in other states have shown similar promise, and U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan has endorsed the idea.

The idea has gained so much traction that some members of Congress want the Obama administration to put "wrap-around" services in all failing schools before taking such drastic measures as firing principals and teachers.

Why Bass is out of his job
So why is Bass losing his job?

There's widespread agreement that the No Child Left Behind law needs to be scrapped. But Obama and Duncan want to keep some of its most contentious provisions, including the "turnaround" requirements that compel staff turnover in failing schools.

The whole notion supposes that the staff is inept or indifferent, said Lester. "There's an assumption that they don't get it," he said.

Now, though, with social issues off the front burner, the high school staff can dedicate themselves full time to academics, Lester said. "We're piloting and implementing every best practice we can."

Bass isn't the school's problem, the superintendent noted, adding that he's a talented leader and that Brooklyn Center is eager to hang onto him.

In a bigger district, when it's clear the principal is worth keeping, administrators can comply with the law by moving him or her to another school — perhaps even one that needs some of that tough love.

Brooklyn Center doesn't have another stand-alone high school, though. Lester is working on a plan to minimize the impact on students by at least keeping Bass in the district, but he doesn't know whether he can carry it out.

For his part, Bass is thinking about next year's seventh- and eighth-graders who will need to solidify the skills too few of their older schoolmates have mastered. Because the district can provide them with social and health services earlier, it stands a better chance of eliminating barriers to their success.

"We believe the longer kids stay in our program, the more the gap narrows," said Bass.

With the early attention, it may well be long enough to make a significant difference.

"That group," Bass said, "is going to get a lot of love from us."

Beth Hawkins writes about criminal justice, schools and other topics.

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Comments (6)

Great reporting. Arne Duncan is one cruel SOB.

Sounds like Brooklyn Center "gets" true school reform while, unfortunately, the Obama administration and Education Secretary Arne Duncan still think punitive measures help students succeed -- at least at test taking.

I think Minnesota can be grateful not to have been awarded any Race to the Top funds, should avoid seeking any in future, and should be grateful most of all for principals and teachers like Lester and Bass.

I just want to point out this whole model was imported from the private sector- yet another example of private sector efficiency.

This is basically a template based on Jack Welch's (G.E. CEO in the 90s) fire 10% every year strategy. Welch always said you gotta get rid of the bottom 10% but the problem is he pulled that 10% out of the department of his own backside. Sure there are duds in every organization but there's no law of the universe establishing a minimum or maximum percentage. And of course the problem is always recognizing who the under performers are. When you substitute a formula for a actual evaluation and judgment you create an inflexible system.

Unfortunately this management fad persists in both the private and public sector to this day despite it's obvious flaws. Much of Welch's (and other CEOs of the 90s) genius has turned out to be not-so-much in the long run.

I hope the delusion of private sector superiority is finally dissolving. From BP to the health care industry examples of private efficiency failures abound. Turn out the key to efficiency isn't greed, it's competent and intelligent people figuring out how make things work better. And it turns out that wanting to things to work better is a human trait, independent of profit motive or greed. Once and while you run into people who simply care. Keith Lester and Bryan Bass are after all salaried public employees who can never hope to make even a fraction of the salary of a G.E. or United Health CEO oven vice CEO.

Notice how the who's-who of education reform never weighs in on stories like this - although they must read them. Joe Nathan comes to mind. No one has studied school reform more than him, yet he never admits the problems, or admits his own culpability in making things like this happen. The silence is deafening.

Funny to see how distorted an outsider's veiw can be. Brooklyn Center is one of the worst run districts in the state. Turnover in the district office has been huge. The entire staff was "let go" a few years ago and now there is no consistancy. If you are an employee that has issues with your pay, you have no idea where to turn. District finances are a mess and no one has a clue what's going on financially.

Bass may have been fired because of No Child left behind, but I would have you check around the state and find another pinciple who has been fired for the same reason. I suspect that if you dig a little deeper you'll find that Bass wasn't as popular everyone as your article suggests. If my hunch is correct he may not be the last to go.

Parents, Parents Parents. How can we make parents care? These are precious gifts God has given us to care about and love. I have no quick answers, but one thing: as we have taken God out of public schooling, the slide continues apace.