No short-cut to success: How Harvest Prep beats the achievement gap in Minneapolis

Harvest Prep fourth graders play Cool Math games in computer class. (Photo by Alleen Brown)

It’s hard not to pay attention to fourth grade teacher Fatou Diahame, even when she’s teaching a subject as dreary as math. She’s constantly moving — walking back and forth, hands gesturing. Her eyes are wide — they move from student to student like she’s really looking. She’s loud and demanding.

Today is a lesson on fractions and whole numbers. She has ¼, and she’s going to turn it into something — will it be a decimal or whole number? Diahame circles the room, “Decimal or whole number? Decimal or whole number?” she says, pointing at each child.

“If you picked it just because it sounded good, raise your hand.” Most of the room’s hands go up. “That’s okay. Sometimes I do that stuff.”

This is one of two articles about Harvest Prep schools. Click here for Minneapolis Public Schools partner with celebrity educator Eric Mahmoud to battle achievement gap

And then they’re up. They’re doing jumping jacks. “Now do your coolest walk!” Boys and girls in black pants and white polos, blue and green jumpers, giggle as they saunter around the room. And it’s back to fractions.

Normally, Diahame teaches an all-boys class at Best Academy, but today she’s teaching math to a struggling co-ed class at Harvest Prep. You see, every child in Diahame’s third grade class of African American boys last year exceeded Minnesota math standards. It’s a big deal. Only 19 percent of the Minneapolis school district’s African American students did the same. Altogether, 38 percent of Minneapolis Public Schools students scored proficient in math.

Part of the discrepancy has to do with a change in the math test that sunk most schools’ scores last year. At Harvest Prep and Best Academy, though, it didn’t seem to matter — in fact, scores increased between 2010 and 2011.

Those scores are one reason the Minneapolis school district agreed to authorize the opening of four more North Minneapolis charters modeled after the odds-beating schools.

The charters’ director, Eric Mahmoud, hopes to show that the model can work with any student. Minneapolis Public Schools hopes to pick up some of the charters’ best practices.

So what are Mahmoud’s schools doing right? How much of it can be replicated in a district as big as Minneapolis? And is Harvest Prep’s model really what we want?

The schools: Seed Academy, Harvest Prep, and Best Academy

Eric Mahmoud is the director of two charter schools: Harvest Prep and Best Academy. At both schools, the vast majority of the student body is African American or East African. Two of five distinct programs are gender-specific, and a third focuses on East African students.

Why divide students by gender and culture? Mahmoud recalled a small cancerous lump doctors found on his intestines five years ago. “They didn’t send a general practitioner in; they sent in someone who specializes in cancer,” he said. “The more serious the problem, the more you specialize. There’s no more serious a problem than what African American kids are facing, especially African American boys.”

But aren’t kids missing opportunities for relationships with diverse classmates? “I think you relate best to other students when you’re on equal footing,” Mahmoud said. “If you have confidence in yourself, I think it’s easier to relate to other people.”

Seed Academy

This is where it all started. Seed Academy opened in 1985 as a daycare in Eric and wife Ella Mahmoud’s home. Now it’s a full-day licensed preschool for kids 33 months to 5 years old.

Harvest Prep

A K-6 co-ed school with 381 students. Harvest Prep grew out of Seed Academy in 1992 and was a private school until it became a charter in 1999. In 5th grade, most of the school’s boys move to an all-boy middle school program at Best Academy, and girls join the S.I.S.T.E.R. middle school program at Harvest. There is one co-ed 5th grade class. After 6th grade, girls move to the S.I.S.T.E.R. program at Best.

Best Academy

A K-8 school, divided into three programs: one for boys, one for girls, and one for East African students. Best grew out of a boys academy started at Harvest Prep in the 2005-2006 school year. It opened as its own charter in 2008. There are 184 students in the K-8 boys program, and 32 girls in the 7th and 8th grade S.I.S.T.E.R. Academy. A co-ed program for East African students enrolls 260 kids.

Best Academy East

A K-8 Best Academy program opened in 2009 for East African students. The school currently enrolls 260 boys and girls.

S.I.S.T.E.R. Academy

Started in 2008, the acronym stands for Sisters in Science, Technology, Engineering and Rx (medicine). There are 87 middle school girls enrolled in this program, which is divided into 5th and 6th grade classrooms at Harvest Prep and 7th and 8th grade classrooms at Best Academy.

High school after Seed/Harvest/Best?

Mahmoud said he has no plans to open a high school. He said many students go on to attend the private DeLaSalle High School; others attend Minneapolis or suburban district schools. “I think if we do a great job with preschool through eighth grade, then our children are going to be bullet-proof," he said.

Best Practices

Some things I observed on a recent visit to Harvest Prep and Best Academy:

Data is on everyone’s minds, including the kids. Lesson plans for the year are structured around Minnesota standards. That means a lot of drilling and a lot of testing. An early release day on Friday gives teachers time to review students’ scores on weekly tests similar in structure to the MCAs. Those test results guide teachers’ plans for the next week’s lessons and for individual student interventions.

There’s constant evaluation and change. If something isn’t working, they try something new.

Teachers work in teams and share responsibilities. Diahame, who usually teaches a boys’ class at Best Academy, is good at math, so the day I visited she was teaching math to struggling co-ed fourth graders at Harvest Prep. The more advanced kids were learning math in another classroom with another teacher.

Students are in school 8 am to 4:45 pm, except for Fridays, when they get out at 1:45. The year is 196 days long, compared to Minneapolis’s 172. According to Mahmoud, teachers are expected to work 60 to 70 hours each week, and the average teacher makes approximately $40,000. According to the Minnesota Department of Education, the average MPS teacher earns $66,412. Teachers at Harvest and Best earn bonuses and raises based on evaluations and student achievement. They’re in charge of no more than 25 students.

Students get worked and so do teachers, but there’s a softness to it all. Despite their tough schedules and demanding academic work, the kids are not robots. They chat in the hallways, they wiggle around, and they answer question incorrectly.

Each staff person I spoke to talked about believing in those kids, caring about those kids, loving those kids, and letting them know those things.

Finding the teachers

Love is a prerequisite for teachers at Harvest Prep. It’s a mindset that director Mahmoud thinks will be challenging to find in the quantity of teachers he needs for his four new schools. “It’s not about qualities you could put on a resume; it’s about a mindset of doing whatever it takes for the children,” he said.

“When our kids know that we love them, they will eat out of our hand,” said Harvest Prep third grade teacher Goldee Shear. She added, “Being in this environment has to be by choice. If you don’t love it, you won’t do well.”

The likelihood of getting Minneapolis Public Schools teachers to work the way Harvest Prep teachers do seems slim. The statement’s not meant to disparage MPS teachers, it’s just that Harvest Prep teachers are expected to work a lot, and to work without the support of a union.

Shear said she doesn’t know if she would be able to do her job well if she had kids. For more than ten years, she worked for MPS, and in her third year at Harvest Prep, she said her hours are longer and more intense than they were at the district.

“Teachers [everywhere] are burnt out. Yes, our focus needs to be the child, but it needs to be our teachers as well,” she said, adding that kids can get burnt out, too. She couldn’t offer a golden key to avoiding burnout, but she said helping teachers and students understand the value of what they’re doing helps. Administrator support helps, too.

One of her biggest challenges, she said, is getting parents on board. “We’re teaching social and moral development, ethics and behavior, moving classes from lower class to middle class, middle class to upper class,” she said. “The parents — they’re not always on board to see the benefit of moving from lower class to middle class.”

How does she deal with that? “I talk to my parents every day. They know how their child does daily,” she said. Sometimes she does home visits. “As difficult as our children can be, all of them are reachable.”

Numbers, numbers, numbers

Replicating Harvest Prep’s long day, long year and long teacher hours would be hard on a district level. Harvest staff say mimicking the schools’ use of data might be easier.

“I love talking about data,” said Best Academy third grade teacher Erin House. At the front of her class she’s posted a countdown to the MCAs. She said each student knows his current grades and test scores. Little things like stickers incentivize good work. “In my experience, the students really enjoy the challenge.”

 

“If the standards were different, content absolutely would look different,” said director Mahmoud. He dismissed a question about whether designing instruction after standards amounts to teaching to the test, saying that if an assessment is aligned to the standards, then there shouldn’t be a problem. “The worst thing in the world is to teach to something other than what the students are going to be assessed on.”

It’s a fair argument. If we’ve agreed as a state to a certain set of standards we want all of our children to meet, and we’ve designed a test that accurately measures those standards, then teaching kids to test well should by default teach kids those agreed-upon standards.

But what about things that can’t be measured? Do kids at Harvest Prep and Best Academy have opportunities for creative work?

Shear answered with a resounding, “No.” Harvest and Best focus on academics. An individual teacher could bring an art project into their classroom, but creative work is not a focus of the school.

Other staff disagreed. Diahame said she uses creative writing projects to give kids a break. They write funny stories and share them with the class. Mahmoud pointed to music class, student government, the spelling bee and a school-wide focus on writing.

Achilles heel?

Harvest’s academic rigor has not deterred fourth grader Nas Lord’s plans to be a professional athlete or a rapper. He likes science, though. It’s his favorite subject. He said his class did an experiment recently involving those green things that grow out of potatoes. Sadly, the experiment ended early, when the potatoes got too stinky and had to be thrown away.

Science scores are low at Best and Harvest — lower than the state and district averages. Last year, only seven percent of Harvest Prep students scored proficient on state science tests. In Minneapolis Public Schools, 31 percent passed.

“We’re certainly not proud of that,” said Mahmoud. “We’re trying to get better at that.”

That’s one thing about Harvest and Best: stagnation is not part of their culture. The data system used now was only instituted last year. This year teachers mentioned to Mahmoud that they were concerned about behavior, so he sent a cadre to North Star Academy in New Jersey, known for its students’ good manners.

The teachers came back and instituted a point system for behavior in January. Students with enough points at the end of the week get to attend Fun Friday. Students in a second tier go to the “not yet” room, and the ones who really struggled are “on the bench” – they literally sit on a bench where they can hear fun Friday going on. School behavior improved significantly.

“I see us as almost researchers. What we’re trying to demonstrate is that it can be done,” Mahmoud said. Hmmm… Harvest Prep as a research center, doing whatever it takes to prove a doubted hypothesis — that poor, non-white students from North Minneapolis can do well in school.

Said Mahmoud, “If we can fix it here in North Minneapolis, we can fix it in other places.”

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Alleen Brown's picture
Alleen Brown

Alleen Brown (alleenbrown [at] tcdailyplanet [dot] net or Twitter @AlleenBrown) is a freelance writer from Minneapolis.

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I applaud teachers who are

I applaud teachers who are willing to work 70 hours a week. No doubt the teachers at this school are miracle-workers. But as one of the teachers said, there would be no room for a teacher who is a parent to be able to parent while working this type of a schedule.

Come to think of it, I can't think that anyone working hours like that would have time to have any life whatsoever. Are we telling young people in their twenties that in order to be a good teacher, one has to sacrifice any semblance of a life outside work?  One has to forget having kids? One has to neglect family members or friends? How about one's health?

Yes. There are others who work 70 hour weeks. I can think of just two categories: those who are making big money and who sacrifice a life for wealth or power. And those who are so marginalized, without options, that they are forced to work horrible hours.

If a person works 70 hour weeks, and makes only 40k as a base, I would think the person seems to belong to the latter group.

I think that teachers have a right to be paid like professionals and to work hours similar to that of other professionals within their pay range. This belief does not make me less loving of the students I serve; it merely means that, like any other professional, I don't want to be taken advantage of. If people are really worried about the achievement gap, volunteer in a school, tutor a kid after work. We're working waaaay off the clock because we love our students and want them to succeed. Complaining about the achievement gap is fair; taking a hit to teachers who do not work 70 hours a week is not.