When was the last time you walked into a school? Conferences and student drop-offs and pick-ups aside, most of us have not experienced a school site visit while classes are taking place and administrators are eager to tout their school’s story. The opportunity awaits. As the education reform dialogue continues to accelerate in Minnesota, consider setting aside a few hours to visit a local and/or amazing school in 2012.
At MinnCAN, we take it upon ourselves to continually visit schools across the state. From this, we glean concrete examples of what’s working exceptionally well and where there are opportunities for improvement. At the high-performing schools, we clearly witness students who are learning, who feel safe and comfortable, and where there is a palpable mission. It is absolute magic. This December, we -along with our board of directors and Students for Education Reform (SFER) – visited Harvest Preparatory School in Minneapolis and Concordia Creative Learning Academy in St. Paul.
Harvest Preparatory School, a well-oiled operation, is efficient and purposeful. When we arrived, three uniformed girls greeted us, introduced themselves and escorted us to their school’s library. Right away we took notice of the high expectations for students and staff, as well as the school’s strong culture. Students were incredibly orderly and polite, shyly greeting us as they traveled in line down the hallways. Classroom learning was impressive; teachers and students were focused and engaged. For example, 4th grade math students who were learning about sets unanimously and excitedly raised their hands every time the teacher posed a question to the class.
Eric Mahmoud, Harvest Preparatory School founder, explained to us that the no-excuses culture, data-driven instruction and a longer school year (48 weeks!) are advantageous and contribute to their track record of student learning gains. (The school consistently posts among the strongest student achievement gains in the state of Minnesota.)
Shortly thereafter we visited Concordia Creative Learning Academy, where more than 90 percent of students are enrolled in a free and reduced lunch program. Considering the obstacles that many of the school’s students face, it has evolved into a strong environment for getting students career and college ready (graduation rates, college enrollment, etc.). When you enter CCLA, you might feel like you’re at home. Students are relaxed, the staff and teachers are warm and nurturing, and everyone is respected. We visited the day of CCLA’s annual winter celebration – the school was adorned with Christmas lights in the hallways and students were dressed in their best. As we toured, throngs of students welcomed us and hugged their school principal, Mary Donaldson. In the classrooms, we saw students engaged in their workbooks, sitting attentively at their desk or curled up on a beanbag chair. It, too, was magic. Learning at CCLA is not enforced strictly; students trust their teachers and understand that learning is in the best thing for them.
The atmosphere, culture and tone at these two schools was drastically different, but in their own ways exceptionally effective. We ask ourselves: What were the common threads between these two high-performing schools? The answer, among many, strong and unified school culture, bold leaders and highly skilled faculty and staff who focus on achievement gains, data-driven instruction, and a longer school day and year.
As the conversation on education in Minnesota digs deeper and deeper into the achievement gap, it’s vital that we highlight the amazing things that are happening in Minnesota’s schools. There are success stories all around, including models and approaches we should encourage other schools to adopt.
Next on the docket: White Bear Lake High School – South Campus and Hiawatha Leadership Academy. Care to join us or add another school to the list? Contact MinnCAN’s public affairs manager, Nicholas Banovetz at firstname.lastname@example.org or 651-815-5999.
For this New Year, everyone should experience the magic of a high-performing school.