Last year, Minneapolis Public Schools pushed the restart button on two of their seven high schools. It was a dramatic move, designed to restore parents’ confidence after years of sinking test scores and declining enrollments. Students and teachers alike greeted it with tears and anger. After these so-called “fresh starts,” at least one school—Edison High School—is going full steam ahead with a high-energy restructuring plan.
In a “fresh start,” every teacher is fired and given a chance to re-apply for their old jobs, but have to face stringent criteria, giving the principal a chance to select teachers with certain beliefs or teaching methods. Once all former teachers have had a chance to apply, the principal is permitted to hire new teachers from around the district using the same criteria. At Edison, around 50% of the teaching staff stayed on, according to Principal Carla Steinbach.
Delon Smith, an algebra teacher who came to Edison last year and stayed on through the fresh start, remembers there was “a lot of crying” when the announcement was made. “Imagine, you’ve been at this school 15, 20 years, and suddenly you have to re-interview for your job.” (MPR has more teacher reactions)
This year, those feelings have pretty much vanished, Smith said. He said his fellow teachers have “more enthusiasm – you definitely see more people smiling in the halls.”
In addition to new teaching staff, a slew of new reforms have been put in place to support this enthusiasm and to help the students. Teachers now participate in weekly “Teacher Advancement Program” sessions, where they meet with colleagues in similar subject areas to share teaching techniques, meet with mentor teachers, learn teaching “best practices,” and get feedback from administrators. Students have also been taught a specific note-taking system, and are required to use it in class. To measure teachers’ effectiveness and students’ progress, Principal Steinbach said, mini-Minnesota Comprehensive Assessment benchmark tests are being given regularly to students.
These support systems, along with a new discipline system that aims to reinforce positive behavior instead of penalizing negative behavior, are designed to support teachers and push kids, said Principal Steinbach, following the theory that all children can succeed if they are pushed to meet high expectations.
“I don’t believe a kid has to miss a math or an English class,” Steinbach said. “You can’t dump them in a remedial class: you have to make it up [the gap in the student’s knowledge] in class.”
“Even if a student isn’t pushing [themselves],” said senior Mariah Lenon, “teachers are willing to go the extra mile” to give the student help and encouragement, even outside the classroom.
So far, the students I spoke to said their peers were reacting well. Jon Hame, a senior, said most of his peers seem to be reacting well to the new rigor. “They’re definitely more engaged,” Hame said.
Beth Hulteng, a music and band teacher, said she saw many colleagues excited and motivated by the opportunity to “make their mark, define their program…and to build their own thing.”
Hulteng came to Edison this year after five years at the Ramsey International Fine Arts Center in South Minneapolis. She believes the TAP program is helping by letting teachers exchange ideas.
Mike Icarella, a business teacher and sports coach, said the TAP sessions reinforce a sense that test scores are a high priority. “There’s a hidden feeling that you know we have to get them [the students’ test scores] up,” he said.
“Everyone is on board with improving the kids,” said Icarella, the self-described “Mr Edison” because of his 14 years teaching at the school. “I don’t want to sound like a jerk…but being able to go out and hire staff with that kind of drive and energy and purpose really did it. In education, you don’t always get that.”
Some teachers said that the TAP program – touted by the principal as central to future success – is exhausting. Chemistry teacher Claire Hypolite said that she is sometimes overwhelmed with the reports she must fill out as part of TAP, and that it cuts into preparatory time for her classes.
Edison’s new attitude and new programming resemble those used by Teach For America (TFA), the critically acclaimed non-profit that recruits new college graduates to teach in high-poverty schools for two years. Like the TAP program, TFA offers recruits intensive support, but also expects them to push their students to the limit, using all the energy that will take. But, according to TFA media representative Kerci Marcello Stroud, only 44% of recruits stay in the high-poverty school they are originally placed in once their two-year commitment is up.
The rest transfer to wealthier schools (whose students need less support), or “burn out” and leave teaching all together.Correction: Stroud said that 61% stay in teaching, but was not able to say how many of these teachers remain in low-income schools beyond their second year.
While Edison will certainly be judged for its performance in this year’s statewide achievement tests, Principal Steinbach argued that real progress won’t be evident for “three years, when the current group of freshmen are juniors taking the MCA. Then you’ll see the full impact.”
James Sanna is a freelance writer covering education issues for the Daily Planet.