First questions first. Who was Richard Allen?
Bondo Nyembwe, principal of the new Richard Allen Math & Science Academy (RAMSA), 5140 Fremont Ave. N., smiles broadly at the question, which he hears often.
“He was a bishop who founded the African Methodist Episcopal Church in 1797 in the south. He wanted to give African Americans back their dignity, and he started teaching them in evening classes.”
RAMSA is a charter middle school for grades 6-8. It is located in Our Lady of Victory’s school building, which formerly housed St. Elizabeth Seton School. Its opening day is Sept. 1 and enrollment, so far, is 125 students. The school has a STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) curriculum with a psychological component: “We need to teach our students character,” Nyembwe said. “Our goal is to shift their way of thinking and develop their social skills.
“We will get at their conscience through a focus on empathy, empowerment, self discipline and respect. Some students need to change the habits of their mind. Here they will learn to respect themselves and each other.”
Nyembwe said one of the staff’s challenges is to open students’ minds to a variety of career paths. “We’ve all been bombarded with images of professional athletes. That’s all the kids want to become. There are African American scientists and engineers and inventors, but traditional school textbooks do not include them. Ben Carson, for instance, is the director of Johns Hopkins Medical School. He was the first African American to perform open heart surgery on twins. We have a wall of fame with photographs of African Americans who have made significant contributions to science, education, engineering. On the same wall, we will put a mirror.”
Another goal is to “encourage international-mindedness,” he said. “Every day, students will learn about something happening in the world.” Students will log onto a website, Channelone.com, for a “kid-friendly” daily news broadcast, he said.
Why start a new middle school? “Research shows that when students miss out on things in third and fourth grade, you can still reach them in the middle school years.” Students attend a four-day orientation that includes study skills, paying attention, time management, participation, taking notes, self discipline, money management and college access, Nyembwe said, adding that in some cases, teachers will likely have their work cut out for them.
“The students all took assessment tests in reading, writing and science; not all of them are up to their grade levels. Our goal is to get them there.”
Another goal is to get them thinking about college; school staff has been collecting college pennants and hanging them in the hallways to increase awareness of Minnesota schools. Fridays are “College Days,” and students are encouraged to wear clothing with college and university logos. Each student will have an individual learning plan that includes personal goals, career goals and life goals. “We want them to start thinking about where they want to be,” he said.
The majority of RAMSA students are African American, with a few Caucasian and Latino students. Many come from North Minneapolis and suburbs such as Brooklyn Center, Columbia Heights, and Robbinsdale. “We have recruiters, we worked at the Northeast parade, we ran advertisements on radio stations and we went door to door. We had an open house.”
Nyembwe’s background, he said, includes emigrating from the Republic of Congo 15 years ago. He attended Edison High School, graduating in 1997, and graduated from the University of Minnesota with two degrees, one in international relations, the other in Spanish. “I am finishing up a master’s degree in leadership and development. Prior to coming here, I was the director for The City, Inc.’s two alternative schools. Most recently, I worked as a program administrator for the Minnesota Department of Education, running The Choice is Yours program.”
Eight RAMSA teachers will teach math, science, language arts, social studies, Spanish, physical education and health, Nyembwe said. There is also a special education teacher. Students will wear uniforms that consist of khaki pants and cardinal red or royal blue polo shirts with school logos. He said he estimates that there will be about 22 students in a classroom.
Because a math and technology school is more expensive than other schools to run, he added (their computer lab, for instance, has 22 computers, and each classroom has a television and DVD player), they have been seeking grants from such organizations as the National Science Foundation, as well as federal grants for new charter schools. “We need to do an inventory, to find out which students have access to computers at home,” he said. “That will be important for teachers to know when they assign homework.”
According to Minnesota Department of Education information, the North Side has seven charter middle and high schools.
They include New Millennium Academy, a K-8 at 1203 Bryant Ave. N., which focuses on Hmong heritage; Four Directions, 1113 West Broadway, an 8-12 school with an American Indian focus; and Dunwoody Academy, a high school in a new location at North High this year, 1500 James Ave. N., which offers career-focused training in the automotive, construction, health care and manufacturing industries.
Minnesota Internship Center Charter High School, 2507 Fremont Ave. N. is a work experience school that targets 16 to 20 years olds. Like RAMSA, its sponsor is Pillsbury United Communities (PUC).
Prestige Academy (formerly called Ascension Academy), 1704 Dupont Ave. N., is a 9-12 charter high school, as is Long Tieng Academy, 1718 Washington St. N.
WISE (Woodson Institute for Student Excellence), which operated at 2620 Russell Ave. N. for seven years, has an agreement with Minneapolis Public Schools to purchase Franklin School, 1501 Aldrich Ave. N. WISE is a K-7 charter that planned to add an eighth grade in the 2009-2010 school year.
For information on RAMSA, call 612-559-5200. The website is www.ramsaacademy.org.