“Friends” show one path for charter school sponsors

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“There’s only one bully in the school – that’s me!” Leon Cooper jabbed a thick finger at his chest. “We don’t have any gangs, or drugs, or fighting. The kids know they have to leave that at the door…If you don’t have discipline and order, you can’t have a great school.”

Cooper is the principal and superintendent of Minneapolis Academy, a South Minneapolis charter middle school. The Academy is sponsored by Friends of Education (formerly Friends of Ascension), a non-profit that has, by many accounts, succeeded well in sponsoring a range of high-performing charter schools while many Minnesota charters struggle to perform better than the school districts they were originally founded to compete against.

Recent reports haven’t been particularly kind to Minnesota’s charter schools – big “frowny face” stickers for performance from a poverty think-tank at the University of Minnesota, and a thick report from the non-partisan legislative auditor that accused the Department of Education and charter school sponsors of lax oversight. In response, legislators and a charter school association have started batting around ideas about how to reform this home-grown education movement.

By the numbers
According to the Minnesota Association of Charter Schools, 143 charter schools were operating in Minnesota in 2007-08 school year, with a total enrollment of 28,034.

A June 2008 report from the Center for School Change at the Hubert Humphrey Institute of the University of Minnesota said that 31 of these charter schools were located in Minneapolis, 27 in St. Paul, and 32 in the greater metro area.

Cooper credits his students’ success and discipline to their teachers, the Core Knowledge curriculum – and some oversight by the Academy’s sponsor, Friends of Education in the first two years after the school was founded.

“Friends of Education has worked as a sponsor because they do what’s required, keeping an eye on our financial situation…but they don’t mix around with what we’re doing here,” said Cooper

Beth Topuluk, Friends of Education’s Director of Charter Schools explained their six-point system: monthly financial reports, yearly audits by an independent auditor, visits to a school and its classrooms, yearly budget review, sitting in on schools’ board meetings, and making sure tough academic standards are written into each school’s charter. Schools sponsored by Friends of Education use the rigorous Core Knowledge or Classical curricula.

Eugene Piccolo, Executive Director of the Minnesota Association of Charter Schools, thinks Friends is on to something. MACS had earlier proposed legislation to reform charter school governance and the oversight role of the sponsor. In an interview last month, Piccolo described Friends as one of the best sponsors in Minnesota because of their intensive oversight process.

This oversight, developed from Friends’ initial experience with Prestige Academy in North Minneapolis does not come cheap, said Topuluk. With nearly three full-time employees dedicated to overseeing charter schools, the $60,000 in state aid they receive as a sponsor doesn’t go very far. The rest of their $250,000 annual budget comes from large donations from TCF Bank and other private funders, she said.

Born as “Friends of Ascension,” Friends of Education is a non-profit organization that grew out of a group of businessmen who came together to save Ascension Catholic School, a K-8 school in North Minneapolis that was going under in the late 1990s due to lack of funding. Friends’ Board Chair Bill Cooper said they thought Ascension Catholic School was worth saving because it provided “a group of disadvantaged children with a safe school,” but wanted a say in how the school was run, in order to help raise its academic performance.

Now, he said 100 percent of the students at Ascension Catholic School pass the reading portion of the tests, and 89 percent pass the math portion, contrasting that with neighborhood middle schools – Lucy Laney, Nellie Stone Johnson, and Olson Upper Academy – that score between 15 percent and 40 percent on the reading test, and between 10 percent and 15 percent on the math test.

After their experience with Ascension Catholic School, Friends’ board determined that sponsoring charter schools would be the best way to fulfill their “core mission of educating children,” Topuluk said. Cooper said Friends of Education has not been involved in religious education at Ascension Catholic School. Friends continues to support and oversee the academic curriculum of Ascension Catholic School, Topuluk said, seeing it as consistent with their core mission.

The Friends charter schools cannot claim as much success in educating low-income, urban students as Ascension Catholic School. Twelve of their 17 schools are located outside the city limits of Minneapolis and St. Paul. Only five of the schools have large populations of low-income students. None of these five comes anywhere near the performance of Ascension Catholic School.

Nonetheless, Minneapolis Academy claims a measure of success. Minneapolis Academy had an enrollment of 124 in 2007-08, with 77 students taking the MCA-II tests. Minneapolis Academy reports 81 percent of its students receiving free and reduced-price lunch. The number of students receiving free and reduced-price lunch is an accepted way of measuring the rate of poverty in a school. Low-income students make up 64 percent of Minneapolis students, and 70 percent in St Paul.

Low-income eighth-grade students at Minneapolis Academy had higher average scores on some parts of the MCA-II tests last year than low-income students in Minneapolis or St Paul district schools. However, because only 22 eighth graders at Minneapolis Academy took the test, the sample is too small for a reliable statistical comparison.

Friends of Education Sponsors the following schools:

Academy of BioSciences – Columbia Heights

Aspen Academy – Prior Lake

Beacon Academy – Plymouth

Beacon Preparatory School – Plymouth

Cygnus Academy – Anoka

DaVinci Academy – Blaine

Eagle Ridge Academy – Eden Prairie

Long Tieng Academy – Minneapolis

Minneapolis Academy – Minneapolis

New Millennium Academy – Minneapolis

Nova Classical Academy – St. Paul

Paideia Academy – Apple Valley

Prestige Academy — Minneapolis

STRIDE Academy – Saint Cloud

Seven Hills Classical Academy – Bloomington

St. Croix Preparatory Academy – Stillwater

Yinghua Academy – St. Paul

Of these, only the Academy of BioSciences, Long Tieng Academy, Minneapolis Academy, Prestige Academy, and New Millennium Academy have large populations of free- and reduced-price lunch students.

“You can’t expect a kid who comes in two to three years behind grade level to be on grade level by the time he leaves here. It’s just not possible,” said Minneapolis Academy’s Cooper. Most of his students, he said, enter Minneapolis Academy several grades behind in reading and math. “But every student who comes here makes a lot of progress every year – that’s what’s important,” he said.

At Nova Classical Academy in St Paul, students who receive free and reduced-price lunch make up only 13 percent of the school population, compared to 64 percent in district schools. Miranda Morton, the school’s principal, says that low-income students at Nova score better than low-income students at all other schools across the state. Again, the number of students in the sample is very small (29 low-income students tested in 2007-08 at Nova), so statistically significant comparisons are difficult.

Both principals said they enjoyed the relatively hands-off attitude Friends of Education takes towards the education side of the school, letting them use their unique curriculum models to the fullest extent.

Topuluk and Cooper defended Friends’ oversight model, citing its success in preventing financial abuses at several schools, such as New Salem Elementary School, whose charter was suspended by Friends of Education in 2007 for failing to give their officials access to financial data. The state Department of Education confirmed that New Salem closed in August 2007 and has not re-opened.

Leon Cooper, of Minneapolis Academy, welcomed Friends’ oversight when the school was just starting out. But most of the time, Topuluk said, “people in charter schools strongly resist measurement and evaluation, because they’ve come from traditional education community, where the culture’s more fuzzy.”

Above all else, Topuluk said, their charter schools have succeeded because each prospective school has to prove they’ll offer a good education in models that parents want.

“You have to have a definite commitment to the school from parents,” she said. “You have to do background research into if a school is actually wanted. You can’t start a school just because you want to.”

James Sanna (james.sanna@gmail.com) is a freelance writer, who frequently covers education issues.

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