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The quest to close the achievement gap in north Minneapolis

The quest to close the achievement gap in north Minneapolis
Ava Wichmann

A sore throat only half explains why Terry stayed home from school on a Thursday. Each week, the harassment he suffered at the hands of a whole family of school bullies grew worse. If yesterday's punch in the stomach was any clue, showing up today would surely invite hell. Terry no longer liked school.

According to Terry's mother, Debbie Howell, this is a kid who used to refuse to miss a day. In fact, only a year ago, a different school across the street from her north Minneapolis home was pulling her son toward an improbably bright future. A student at a zero-tolerance, packet-of-homework-a-night charter school, Terry leapt out of bed every morning at 5:30 a.m.

Events this summer put a stop to that. Given the high test scores reported by the two-year-old Minnesota School of Science, it shocked Howell when her son's school doors were slammed shut by the Minneapolis school district for failing to properly serve the children of north Minneapolis.

Perhaps she shouldn't have been so surprised. Terry has attended three North Side schools in four years, and MSS is the second to close abruptly. Terry's first school, Cityview — which was once located in the same building as MSS — also closed for failing to properly serve the children of north Minneapolis.

A 9-year-old black boy living on a struggling side of town, Terry is ripe for salvation by his neighborhood school. He's the subject of a fight for the future. The effort to close the historic achievement gap is a battle for the legacy of our public education system.

But as initiative after initiative and new school after new school cycle through north Minneapolis, it's become unclear how many more surprise gut punches await kids like Terry.

Says Howell, "I just don't want my son to get lost."

For 14 years, Cityview was at the pointy end of the Minneapolis district's numerous stabs at closing an embarrassing gap in test scores between low-income kids of color and middle-class white kids. But today the school sits empty.

With park space on two sides, two Baptist churches, a Buddhist temple, and a family resource center across the street, the building that once housed Cityview and MSS looks like the school that could turn it all around.

Moreover, it's located in a largely black, heavily low-income community in north Minneapolis, exactly the demographics that fall furthest into what's known as the achievement gap. According to statistics collected by the Minneapolis district, the average African American student in Minneapolis is half as likely as a white student to become proficient or advanced in reading and math and half as likely to graduate from high school.

The two schools that the building once housed were shuttered for different reasons, but it was nationwide obsession with school accountability that doomed each.

Rosilyn Carroll, a member of Minnesota School of Science's board, blames a kind of systemic entropy.

"When we really get to it, it isn't about educating students; it's about muck," she says. "It's like in the swamp and there's slime and muck, and as long as you can keep me in the slime and muck of education, then I can't get down to the business of educating."

In its last year, Cityview was a mess, living up more than ever to the bad reputation it had long held among people who'd never set foot in the school. Three principals cycled through. A teacher was caught having sex in the building during school hours.

The chaos was punctuated by the infamous spring 2011 tornado that ripped apart the homes of much of the student body.

In December of that year, the Minneapolis school board voted to close the K-8. With less than a quarter of students scoring proficient in state reading and math tests, Cityview had become a target in a nationwide effort to root out problem schools.

"You could tell when you walked in," says Liz Wielinski, the mother of a now 14-year-old son who attended Cityview's autism program. "The kids were bouncing off the walls."

For kids with autism, even a slight change in the day's schedule can lead to a meltdown. The impact of a new teacher — let alone a new school — is tremendous. The district attempted to mitigate the upheaval by allowing its seven special education classrooms to stay in the Cityview building as the rest of the school was phased out. Minnesota School of Science, which would move in the following year, signed a one-year agreement to "mainstream" the special education students, allowing them to spend part of their day in the charter school's general education classrooms.

To Wielinski, the damage was already done. "For my son to have the classroom teacher gone, the special ed teacher he'd had for three years pulled out, the school changed, the principal gone, half the teachers gone — he was a mess," she says. "It was like wasting a year."

 

Cityview had more students with disabilities than the average district school because of its citywide special education program, which aggregated kids from across Minneapolis whose needs were significant enough to merit separate classrooms.

Ninety-three percent of the students qualified for free or reduced price lunch. Seventy-eight percent were African American.

Cityview had a dental clinic and a team of social workers. Teachers stockpiled coats for kids in crisis as well as backpacks, gift cards, and socks.

Dara Anderson worked at Cityview from the day the building opened in 1999 until its last year. "The perception to the outside world of what was happening there was not the reality," she says. "It was a family. Cityview was a family."

Cityview opened as a nationwide push for accountability in education intensified. The paint on the walls had barely dried before the year-old Cityview made it onto Minnesota's very first list of underperforming schools in 2000.

One year later, George W. Bush's No Child Left Behind passed, demanding that every single child be able to test at grade level by 2014 and implementing a series of punitive measures for schools that didn't move fast enough toward that goal. Incremental achievement gains were deemed unsatisfactory, and poverty was no longer an excuse.

Meanwhile, north Minneapolis families were leaving district schools in droves as new charter schools popped up and a school choice program bussed kids to the suburbs. K-8 enrollment on the North Side plummeted 44 percent. In 2007, the district closed five north Minneapolis schools whose rosters had shrunk. Many of the displaced kids ended up in Cityview.

Desperate to stanch the loss of students and dollars, the district turned to the business of charter school authorization. The Office of New Schools would build a portfolio of semi-autonomous schools tasked with demonstrating innovative education methods that the district might someday imitate. In spring 2010, the MPS school board voted in the office's first batch of new schools. Among them was Minnesota School of Science, an offshoot of a Chicago-based charter chain. As the 2010 school year closed, MSS was still without a building.

Meanwhile, teachers at Cityview were hopeful. Under principal Laura Cavender, more parents were engaging in school events like an annual Thanksgiving turkey giveaway. In some classrooms, students were doing better on state tests.

"I came in my first year, and it was kind of like a zoo," says former Cityview third-grade teacher Colleen Barksdale. "But when Ms. Cavender came on board, she was a leader you could follow. She had a clear vision."

Yet Cityview was entering its death throes. According to standardized tests from spring 2010, nearly half the students had made less than a year's growth. At most grade levels, test scores were shrinking or showing only modest gains. District administrators grew anxious.

Barksdale was flabbergasted when Cavender was transferred to another school after the spring of 2010. "They began to dismantle things, and it was like what is going on here?"

Cityview was one of seven Minneapolis schools — five on the North Side — targeted by the Minnesota Department of Education as among the lowest performing in the state, meaning they were eligible for a School Improvement Grant. In order to qualify, the district had to choose one of four options: hire a new principal, fire and rehire the entire staff, turn the school over to a charter operator, or close it.

Cityview was the only school of the seven to shut down. District staff say it had already undergone too many turnaround attempts.

That same fall, a cohort of students, community members, and parents successfully rallied to stop the closure of the now 125-year-old North High. Cityview supporters saw one chance for their own school: the Minneapolis school board vote.

But the 11-year-old Cityview lacked North's generations of alumni. Despite emotional pleas from parents, students, and teachers, the board voted 4-to-3 to close the school. Into the building would go Minnesota School of Science.

The Office of New Schools made the same deal with MSS as it would with its other portfolio schools: You get autonomy; we get accountability.

It was clear very early on that Minnesota School of Science was different from Cityview.

There were strict rules for students: No colored weaves. No dreadlocks. No designs shaved into boys' heads. One hour of homework every single night. The teachers were young, not unionized.

"We knew if our kids didn't succeed, our school would shut down. We had no guarantee. Our jobs weren't in the union. Our jobs were not safe," says former MSS kindergarten teacher Greta Callahan. "We made nothing, nothing, nothing compared to what I make at Minneapolis Public Schools, but we were passionate."

 

They operated with few guidelines besides the occasional word from the principal.

"We barely had a curriculum," Callahan says. "We created everything ourselves. We had 100 percent autonomy in the classroom. We were not watched."

The students were still mostly African American, but the school was smaller by 300 kids. It had fewer English language learners and fewer kids in special education.

At the end of its first year, Minnesota School of Science appeared to be doing exactly what Minneapolis Public Schools had wanted. Nearly a third of MSS students passed state math tests, compared to fewer than one in ten at Cityview a year before. The proportion passing state reading and science tests also increased.

Parents were ecstatic. "We'd never really imagined that education like that would be made available to minority students like us, like our children," says Malle Vue, a mother of two daughters who attended MSS.

Although Vue lived across the street from the Cityview building, she did not immediately consider sending her daughter to MSS.

"I was like, 'Oh, another charter school. They come and they go,'" she recalls.

But the lure of proximity overcame her doubts. Vue pulled her kids out of Minneapolis Public Schools and enrolled at MSS.

Every night her kindergartener and third grader would come home from their new school with six or seven pages of homework due the next day. It seemed like too much.

But as Vue brooded over whether she'd made the right choice, she began to notice a difference in her then-third grader.

"She was reading," the mom says. "She was able to speak out in the classroom, because her confidence level went up."

Her daughter's teacher regularly called Vue, emailed her, even made home visits.

"When my kids were attending Minneapolis Public Schools the only phone calls that I would get were when my kid was in trouble."

It was a rule change from the state department of education that set MSS upon the absurdly winding path that led to its closure. But the relationship between the district and the charter soured before then.

"People mistake compliance for accountability. Accountability is proficiency at grade level," says MSS board member Rosilyn Carroll. "When people are compliance-oriented to the extent that I believe [the district Office of New Schools] is, it's about covering their butt."

Some of the problems the district recorded at MSS could be chalked up to first-year fudges. School leadership failed to post MSS board meeting minutes online. The school used an accounting firm that was not approved by the state. Monthly financial statements arrived late.

But several complaints were more serious.

Public education means anyone can go. Even college preparatory charter schools like MSS are legally required to accept pretty much anybody. If a charter fills up, it is required to hold a lottery to decide which children will attend.

Complaints to the district began to roll in early from parents who had been told by MSS administration that the school was not for them. In an interview, former director Hasan Kose denied the allegations, saying that the school did not even fill all of its seats the first year.

"This was a non-selective public school," he says. "We are open to everybody."

Office of New Schools director Sara Paul heard something different when MPS first confronted the charter.

"We did have an explicit response from the first school leaders that [certain families] were 'not a good fit for math and science,'" Paul says. "That's not in line with statutory expectations."

District officials say the issue of selectivity carried into the classrooms where MSS provided services to district special education students. The Minneapolis district has struggled for years to change a culture in which kids with disabilities are treated as if they are not part of the schools they attend. Says Paul: "[MSS leaders] did not want people to think that those were students of MSS."

So the district special-ed kids were not allowed to wear MSS school uniforms.

"They were not our students; they were the district's students," former school director Kose explains, adding, "Why should someone who is attending a district school wear [the MSS] school uniform just because they are coming to our classroom two to three hours a week?"

The list of complaints went on. The school's testing coordinator was caught coaching students to change answers to standardized test questions. MSS reported the violation, and the scores from the classroom in question were thrown out.

"We had challenges; it was a new school. We dealt with a lot of things — we may have made mistakes," admits Concept Schools spokesman Salim Ucan. "What happens usually is the authorizor works with the school and provides a due diligence, an opportunity to fix the issues before they make their final conclusion."

 

MSS's record only got muddier. Less than two months before the charter's second year started, the families of 40 kids with significant disabilities learned that their children would not be allowed to return to the building that fall. The district had only signed a one-year contract with the charter to provide mainstreaming services for the special education students. In July 2012, MSS board members informed the district that they would not continue to work with the students in the fall.

As word of the decision spread, Diane Ravitch, the nation's loudest critic of what she calls "corporate" education reform, called out MSS as being tied to Turkish cleric Fethullah Gulen, the enormously influential leader of an educational and cultural movement that controls a network of schools and companies, some of which are located in the U.S. MSS leaders deny the allegation.

Soon the district would be called on to stick out its neck for a school that was already a pain in the ass and was fast becoming a PR nightmare.

Robert Jones, whose son attended MSS, remembers when the building was originally erected.

"Every time something new and shiny comes up, you think that's gonna be it; that's what's gonna make the city better," he says.

But after all that's happened in the last year, it's hard for him to imagine the space living up to the hope it once invoked.

Last August, yet another cohort of north Minneapolis kids were kicked out of the building. This time, 300 of the subjects of Minneapolis's school reform efforts were notified at the very last minute that Minnesota School of Science would not reopen for the 2013 school year. Despite an earlier promise for a new district school, nothing would replace MSS. Families scrambled.

A year earlier, the state department of education decided that acting as a charter school's landlord as well as its authorizor poses a conflict of interest. Authorizors make sure charter schools are doing what they are supposed to do, so if an authorizor is dependent on a charter for revenue, they're less likely to hold the school accountable.

The state had no intention of letting Minneapolis Public Schools off the hook. The education department enforced its new anti-corruption standard by withholding the building lease aid that Minnesota School of Science relied on to pay rent. Unless MSS either found a new authorizor or a new landlord, it would fall short of hundreds of thousands of dollars owed to the district.

MSS parents, staff, and even its leadership were oblivious to the gathering storm, as the district fought the new regulations and lost.

Meanwhile, the charter was on "intervention" status. The district demanded answers to the long list of concerns accumulated over the past year. MSS leaders assumed intervention had nothing to do with the problem of rent. They were wrong.

District leaders say they were open with MSS about the seriousness of the predicament. MSS would have to pay half a million dollars in rent for the year or leave.

Yet charter leaders say that even as spring approached, they still didn't see that their school was at risk. They found a new authorizor as they waited for MPS to suggest alternative building sites.

In May, Minneapolis Public Schools sent MSS an eviction notice. The school would have to vacate the building by July. The district notified the charter that, given the school's many mistakes, a new authorizor was not an option.

Once again families and staff from the school stood before the district board. The tearful pleas were familiar, but the board's reaction was not. The board declined to bring the issue up for a vote or even a formal discussion. Superintendent Bernadeia Johnson read a prepared speech reiterating that the Office of New Schools' decision was final.

In July, a court denied MSS a restraining order against the district. That same week, the Minneapolis Public Schools announced that there would be no new school to replace MSS.

Remembering the hearing, Terry's father, Chris Miller, shakes his head.

"When we start complaining," he says, "we just sound like we're a bunch of black people complaining."

He felt that parents like himself had been overlooked in a process that decided their child's future.

On May 13, 2013, Superintendent Johnson stood before policymakers, school administrators, neighborhood leaders, and education reporters to announce a major new campaign to improve the lives of kids of color in north Minneapolis.

"It's time to get off the dime, to stop protecting the status quo, to stop being satisfied with poor performance, to stop blaming others and get focused, with partnership and innovation, to finally solve the riddle of Minneapolis Public Schools.... Why aren't all children learning?" she said, adding later, "Our programs work or they don't. And we will not keep programs that are not working for our students and families."

 

Seven months after the speech, at yet another December school board meeting, it seemed that the building's next phase was settled. Into the breach would go Pierre Bottineau French Immersion elementary, the Office of New Schools' experiment in teacher-run schools. Sharing the building would be a new science, technology, engineering, art, and math (STEAM) school.

To the shock of parents, community members, and the Minneapolis Public School district, Pierre Bottineau French Immersion's governing board recommended only one week later that the one-and-a-half-year-old school close at the end of this year.

District officials have vowed to parents that Pierre Bottineau will not close. They're holding meetings now, discussing the tweaks they can make and the initiatives they can implement so that the messy world inside the school may someday look as scrubbed and bright as the building outside.

As parent Liz Wielinski puts it, in words with which few would dare argue: "The people in the community still deserve to have a school and deserve to have a good school."

Malle Vue’s daughter, a former student at MSS
Courtesy of Concept Schools

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