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

Bryan Bass will hand out diplomas tonight and then clean out his office on Friday. The high school principal is popular, energetic and able to point to a hefty list of achievements, but he’s been fired.

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.