Q: What Happens When You Run a School Like a Business? A: You Go Broke.

The students learned how to sit in cubicles and write memos. The staff learned how to ask for a bailout.

At a time when public schools all over the state have been under siege, the Minnesota Business Academy has enjoyed a valuable perk: vocal support from some of the state's most prominent corporations, business people, and politicians. Former Lt. Governor Joanne Benson served as the chief education officer for four years. Governor Tim Pawlenty doled out praise when the St. Paul Chamber of Commerce became the school's official sponsor last year. And a virtual who's-who of big corporations--Xcel Energy, General Mills, Ecolab--have lent their support, offering student internships and sending company officers to serve on its board.

In the MBA, all these people saw a chance to build a new public high school that would immerse students--or "associates," as they are called at MBA--in the realities of the corporate work world. Put another away, they saw a chance to create a school in their own likeness.

Laura Mirsch: "It was total bedlam. You were supposed to do your work in the cube, but a lot of the kids were making prank calls."
Michael Dvorak
Laura Mirsch: "It was total bedlam. You were supposed to do your work in the cube, but a lot of the kids were making prank calls."

Granted, the school has had its share of troubles, a fact that no one denies. Since it opened five years ago in the former Science Museum building in downtown St. Paul, the fledgling charter program has been saddled with debt. In part, this is because the MBA has struggled to attract students: After taking out loans to renovate the building, it needed to attract at least 440 pupils to cover its debts. But the school never got close. In 2003, nearly a quarter of the student body dropped out or was expelled. Throughout its history, the MBA has endured ceaseless staff turnover.

Yet two weeks ago, when the Minnesota Business Academy made its latest pitch for help, supporters painted a portrait of an institution on the verge of turning its troubles around. With staffers, students, and parents packing St. Paul City Hall, the City Council--by a 5-2 margin--agreed to accept the MBA's bailout proposal. That decision wiped the slate clean on $750,000 owed to the city (from a $1 million start-up loan) and it paved the way for the refinancing of about $10 million in other debts.

After the vote, MBA executive director Jerry Neff says he sent a letter to parents telling them, "This deal is history. We're here to stay." No doubt, that was a relief to those students planning to re-enroll and to staff who feared losing their jobs should the MBA default on its debts. Neff says that when stories about the school's financial woes cropped up in the daily papers a few weeks back, he was flooded with calls and e-mails. These concerned parents, he says, told him, "'MBA has been so marvelous for our children, what can we do to make sure there's not a problem here?'"

But in the view of some of the school's critics--including a number of former students, teachers, board members, and parents--the city's actions did little more than forestall the inevitable: the shuttering of a school that they say has floundered since the day it opened its doors. The place they describe is not the bold alternative and educational innovator touted by politicians and corporate PR officers.

Laura Mirsch, who graduated from the school with honors in 2004, says the MBA's problems were never strictly financial. She thinks arrogance and inexperience on the part of some of the MBA's founders played a large role, too. "Basically, it was run by a bunch of businesspeople who thought they knew more about education than public educators," Mirsch says.

When Mirsch arrived as a freshman, she recalls, the students were each shown to a personal cubicle with a computer and a phone. The idea--that kids would learn well in a businesslike setting--didn't mesh with the reality of lightly supervised 14-year-olds left to their own devices. "It was total bedlam," Mirsch remembers. "You were supposed to do your work in the cube, but a lot of the kids were making prank calls and screwing around all the time."

The cubicles didn't last long. In fact, change has been the one constant at MBA. Heavy student and staff turnover included three executive directors--i.e., principals--in five years. According to Neff, just three of the school's original twelve teachers remain on staff. "It takes a while for a school to reach a balance between its pedagogical strategy and the staff that support that," Neff says. "And if those aren't in harmony, those won't work. We've worked hard on establishing a brand-based pedagogy for MBA."

In Laura's Mirsch's view, the educational product at MBA didn't match the high-minded rhetoric of the recruitment pitches--promises of "a very special school" where "young entrepreneurs meet the best and the brightest in their community." As a high-achieving student, Mirsch spent her freshman and sophomore years taking classes with juniors and seniors. After that, she says, there was little left for her at the academy.

By the second semester of her sophomore year, three of Mirsch's four classes were independent studies. She says teachers were supposed to check her progress, but that seldom happened. Sometimes, she says, she would turn in papers that no one bothered to correct. One business class consisted of online tutorials in tasks such as memo-writing; she calls that class "a joke." Frustrated, Mirsch spent most of her junior and senior years taking classes at the University of Minnesota, though she remained enrolled at MBA, where she tutored other students and participated in extra-curricular activities such as Nordic skiing.

 

Jennifer Hiner echoes many of Mirsch's criticisms. Hiner, who graduated with honors this year, says she had "a couple of great teachers" at MBA. But that was less the rule than the exception. According to Hiner, one math teacher routinely doled out good grades for kids who didn't cause trouble, regardless of competence. "I showed up every day, I didn't talk to anyone, and I got an A," she says. "But I didn't know what I was doing. I feel like I'm worse at math than I was in middle school because I haven't done it in four years."

After taking a placement test at Normandale Community College recently--she hopes to go to medical school one day--Hiner says she learned she would need to start with pre-algebra.

Asked about Hiner's claims, MBA director Neff says he finds them "believable." But Neff adds: "We've had staffing changes in our math department and very precise criteria set forth to eliminate that sort of thing. Math is absolutely the center of attention of the MBA and we feel we're turning the corner." He points out that math teachers are in demand these days. Charter schools--which are not unionized and typically only pay about 80 percent of the average public-school wage--have a difficult time keeping good ones.

In the view of some former MBA teachers and board members, math is hardly the only trouble area. "MBA was never a stable place to work and most good teachers were always looking for other opportunities," writes one ex-teacher, who didn't want to be identified. "This was because of the constant pressure that came from knowing that the doors could close at any moment and from erratic, and sometimes vindictive, management."

Kathy Mirsch--a former chair of the MBA board, a volunteer coach, and the mother of Laura--says she found herself frustrated during her years of involvement with the school. She blames many of the school's failings on a "totally unrealistic" business plan. "[The founders] had this vision of what they thought would happened," she says. "They thought a bunch of well-behaved, highly motivated kids were going to come to the school and work in cubicles and be self-motivated and self-directed. It was ridiculous."

Mirsch figures the most recent bailout by the St. Paul City Council has less to do with genuine optimism over the MBA's prospects than the considerable influence of the school's boosters. She doubts that will make much of a difference in the long run.

"I would not recommend this school to anyone," she adds. "I think it's living on borrowed time."

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