First U.S. charter school is here in St. Paul


Teachers for YES Prep, a Houston, Texas, charter school that reports a 100-percent graduation rate, described in a previous MSR story [“Charter school graduates every child,” May 15] how they were able to bridge the educational gap for students in the Houston inner city who had previously struggled in the traditional public school system.

But there’s a comparable success story much closer to home. Minnesotans need only look at their own history to find not only a school with very similar student outcomes, but also the birth of the charter school movement itself.

In the early ’90s, new legislation supported the idea of a school that Milo Cutter, co-director, instructor and a founding member of City Academy, a St. Paul charter school, describes as “the ultimate in site-based management.” Two years prior to this legislation, City Academy had attempted to create a program within the confines of a contracted school.

Contracted schools are a part of the public school district in which they operate. Money for the school’s operations is sent to the district first, and a percentage of the money received per student is held for providing services like financial management. The contract also allows the district decision-making power.

As a part of the contract between the newly burgeoning City Academy and the St. Paul school district, teacher and student selection were under the district’s control. “That went against one of our number-one priorities,” Cutter said. “Choice had to be a big piece of this.”

Cutter says that although then-superintendent Curman Gaines was not pleased to see the first charter school open in his district, he agreed not to stand in the way of its progress. “He was good to his word,” said Cutter. “It was gutsy, because at that point the AFT [American Federation of Teachers, the teachers’ union at that time] came before the [school] board and said they were opposed.”

Under the new legislation, charter schools could be teacher-managed, money would flow directly to the schools, and all ties to the school district were severed. In August of 1992, with no start-up money, City Academy, the first charter school in the nation, opened it doors to approximately 50 students in an empty recreation center.

The charter school legislation gave them the ability to determine their own class size and create an educational community of students, teachers and administrators who were there because they chose to be. Student involvement was a major factor. Cutter says that students had expressed a need for a school small enough that they and the teachers could build strong relationships.

Over the years the student body has grown from 50 to 100, but they are still housed in a recreation center. They have also changed their focus from grades seven through 12 to grades 11 and 12 only.
There are many similarities between this pioneering charter school and YES Prep. For instance, at both schools being accepted into a post-secondary institution is a graduation requirement.

At City Academy, “When they graduate, everything for that next step is in place,” Cutter explains. “The financial aid application is complete, the applications for college are complete, and the testing is complete. They have an acceptance letter in their hand.”

However, City Academy does not share YES Prep’s emphasis on steering students toward Ivy League colleges and universities. Cutter says that many of their students who chose to attend more prestigious post-secondary institutions have tended to leave before completing the first term, sometimes with thousands of dollars of student-loan debt.

This often occurs because the learning environment and support network is so different from what the students are accustomed to. For this reason, City Academy teachers and staff tend to encourage students to attend community colleges and state universities.

In the school’s early years, they encouraged students to complete the college preparation step, but it wasn’t a requirement. However, “We discovered that our students often are first-time diploma owners in their families,” Cutter explains.

“This will be the first [degree] in their family that anybody has earned. Expecting that the families will have the resources to help them and encourage them to finish all of the college [preparation] work was rude… So we changed it and created coursework around it.”

Cutter admits that they have not done a good job keeping track of the actual number of college graduates, but she knows that the numbers have significantly increased over the years by the number of students who return with their stories. And, although they may not be able to boast a 100-percent high school graduation rate as does YES Prep, Cutter is proud to report that “Our graduation rate has always been around 90 to 95 percent.”

They achieve this success rate by being very flexible considering that some of their students are parents who may work a full-time job besides going to school. For example, each school term is five weeks, but not finishing coursework within that time frame doesn’t mean failure; it only means that more coursework has yet to be completed.

“And maybe you won’t graduate this year,” Cutter says they tell students, “but maybe you’ll graduate at [the next] midterm. We can do those things because we’re small.”

City Academy’s ethnic makeup closely mirrors that of St. Paul’s East Side: “Our majority population is Hmong, and then it’s evenly divided among African American and Hispanic. And [we] have a few students of European decent.”

Also like YES Prep, most of their students enter at two years behind their grade level, and sometimes student performance is as low as second-grade level. Eighty-five percent of them have not passed the Basic Skills Tests, which is a high school graduation requirement.

“Every student that’s here makes improvement of one to two years within the space of six months, but I’m not going to promise that they’ll make up that entire deficit that they arrive with,” Cutter says.

An important distinction between the two schools is how they handle parent involvement. Although YES Prep makes initial home visits to all new students and requires a contract between parents, the teacher and the student, Cutter says that City Academy encourages parent participation when parents are interested.

“Many of our parents, by the time the students get to us, are pretty discouraged themselves… Sometimes either they feel like a failure, [or] they feel their child is a failure, and they don’t know what the solution can be.”

When helping a high-school age child, Cutter says, it is especially difficult. “As a parent, you feel intimidated to walk into a very big school and ask for help for someone that you’re hoping is moving to adulthood.”

And, although YES Prep offers five different locations with few deviations among campuses, Cutter says, “I don’t think you can cookie-cutter us.”

Of what students and teachers working together have created in City Academy, Cutter says, “We really are recapturing students and restoring their faith in themselves and in education… It’s kind of reframing the whole public education system for people. No, public education didn’t let you down. It’s maybe just the particular path you chose at that time didn’t match you.”

For more information on City Academy, call 651-298-4624 or go to

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