John Miller had a vision. The veteran educator wanted to introduce high schoolers to what he calls Global Classical Studies — a teaching method predicated on critical thinking and drawing on history’s great minds from Western and Eastern cultures alike.
Nearly four years in the making, Miller’s Mill City High School opened this month in a downtown Minneapolis church. But less than two weeks later, the startup charter school was shuttered.
“It’s definitely hard,” a heavyhearted Miller said Friday, hours before class was dismissed for the last time. “It’s hard to let down families and students and teachers and the church. It’s a tough thing. But it was our only course of action really.”
Based on enrollment projections, Miller expected to have more than 120 students in Mill City’s first year. Less than 50 showed up. With funding tied to enrollment, the significant shortfall dug the school an early grave.
“We had them on paper, but that didn’t translate to bodies in seats,” he said. “It was just not financially feasible to continue.”
Construction in the area Mill City rented in First Covenant Church delayed opening day by two weeks, and likely contributed to the low turnout, he said. Mill City did not have private buses, and some parents balked at sending their kids to school on city buses. By the time it opened, Minneapolis public schools already had three weeks of classes behind them. Part of the lag time came from trying to line up funding to get the space up to code once enrollment looked high enough, said Miller and First Covenant pastor Dan Collison.
First Covenant, which also hosts a homeless shelter in its Downtown East space, eventually scored a loan through an organization Collison describes as “a friend of the congregation.” While he’s actively looking for a new tenant, likely another school, it doesn’t sound like the “friend” lender will come knocking with a crow bar in the immediate future.
“It’s not going to sink the church,” Collison says. “It’s a pause button for us and they’re going to work with us to find another leasing entity, which we hope will be something similar.”
Between the delays, turnover on the school’s board, and what he characterized as unproductive training time, teacher Adrian Balbontin says Mill City seemed disorganized. While he was under the impression he had been hired months earlier, Balbontin — who turned down other offers to join the school — was told that wasn’t entirely true. Although the board had approved his hiring, he was informed the school was waiting on funds to finalize his contract.
Eventually the deal was inked. However, the student body was different than the “exceptionally gifted, driven students” he thought the program was geared toward.
“What we had was students with high [learning disability] numbers, inner city kids, kids on parole,” he says. “It just wasn’t matched up, so from the get-go we were set up for chaos and failure.”
With the school closing, students and teachers are left to make contingency plans. Balbontin, who also works at a restaurant, landed an assistant director gig for an upcoming Guthrie Theater production.
Meanwhile, Miller’s playing education matchmaker, trying to get his former students enrolled in other charter and magnet schools. While he’s yet to consider his next move, it doesn’t sound like there will be a Mill City comeback.
“It’s not as simple as we’ll try again next year,” he said. “Once your corporation is dissolved you have to basically start from scratch. Right now, we're just thinking about how do we end it as well as we can and get kids in places they can flourish.”