Harvest Prep and Higher Ground charter schools raise test scores

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According to the Minnesota Department of Education (MDE), Minneapolis and St. Paul were among several school districts in the state that did not make adequate yearly progress (AYP) in student math and reading test scores this past spring. In Minneapolis, 48 percent of its students were proficient in math, and 52 percent were proficient in reading; and 49 percent in math and 52 percent in reading for students in St. Paul. 


Comparably, half of the 106 Twin Cities metro charter schools did make AYP, including Harvest Preparatory School in Minneapolis: 62 percent in math and 62 percent in reading; and Higher Ground Academy in St. Paul: 64 percent in math and 65 percent in reading.


Eric and Ella Mahmoud founded Harvest Preparatory, a K-6 school in North Minneapolis, in 1992. Originally started as a nonprofit private school but later getting charter school status in 1999, Harvest Prep, whose enrollment is over 300 students, is one of four schools the Mahmouds operate that primarily serves Black students.


Bill Wilson started Higher Ground in St. Paul’s Midway area in 1999. The K-12 school serves primarily students of color: 85 percent are East African students and 15 percent African Americans.


The MSR recently interviewed the two executive directors, Eric Mahmoud and Wilson, on how their students have demonstrated their academic proficiency on the state benchmark tests.


“We’ve been doing pretty well,” claims Mahmoud. “The sad part is that even [at] pretty good, we’re light years ahead of most schools. I believe ultimately that student performance is tied to great teaching, and if we can give more of that great teaching to students, the better the students are going to be.”


Adds Wilson, “We are doing better than many schools are doing, and Eric is doing better than many schools are doing. We like to see it done in all schools. The question is why it isn’t being done for more children. This is one of the reasons we formed this school.


“We assess all of our children, and then we teach and differentiate the instruction so that every child has the chance to learn. They learn at their own pace, but we tell them they have to work a little bit harder.”


Charter schools are publicly funded, independent public schools – essentially they are their own school districts. “Charter schools are a very important part of the education mix because we have to have examples of success in order for us to be more successful,” believes Wilson. “The traditional public school have been a monopoly, and monopolies usually are very self-serving and a non-competitive structure.


“Innovations come from small schools such as ours, Eric’s and others,” he continues. “We shape and mold around the children so that they can effectively learn.”


Mahmoud explains, “That don’t mean that all charter schools are better than district schools because the statistics would say otherwise, but it does give us some flexibility that district schools do not.”


Harvest Prep has an eight-hour school day and a longer school year (200 days as opposed to 175 days in Minneapolis). “You’re looking at an almost 40 percent difference that our students are engaged in classes in contrast to a district school,” says Mahmoud. Beginning this school year, students will be tested every Friday “on a particular Minnesota standard” along with taking comprehensive exams every six weeks, he adds.


“This is basically looking over all the materials that [the students] covered over the six-week period. Once the students have taken the test, we have given the students off the next day, and the teachers then have the whole day to analyze the data and put together action plans based on how well they did.


“I believe ultimately that student performance is tied to great teaching, and if we can give more of that great teaching to students, the better the students are going to be,” says Mahmoud.


Higher Ground’s motto is “English proficiency – college ready,” notes Wilson.


“We want the students to be very proficient in English because that’s the language colleges are requiring proficiency at.” As a result, he strongly discourages teachers lecturing, or “just cover the material” doesn’t always work. “The lesson should connect with the child, and the learner must be involved. Covering the material is not enough – you must engage the child in the learning process. We say every child can learn, but the instruction must be effective.”


Many of his students are English language learners as well. “Our children are predominately second-language learners,” Wilson continues. “They are strong in math but once you introduce a word problem, now English comes into play and that calls for interpreting not only the math concepts but also the concepts of language.”


Wilson points out that last year a series of sessions with parents of honor roll students was held. “We celebrated them [but] they [also] told me what I wanted to hear – it’s about sitting down with the child at home, supporting the school and the work they need to do to make sure that they are proficient,” the director points out. “It starts at the fundamentals, and the home is fundamental to this whole process. What happens at home lays the foundation to what is going to happen at school.”


This year, Wilson says Higher Ground is instituting “homework package[s]” for parents. “We know that the school day is only so long, and if we are going to extend that day, it got to be extend[ed] to the home. The parents are the first teachers. Every home should be a homework center. We don’t expect the parents to teach reading, writing and arithmetic – they don’t have to grade the work. When [students] bring back their homework, we look at it. If something they’ve done was wrong, then we know what we need to teach.”


Despite their results, neither Mahmoud nor Wilson is completely satisfied, however. “If our reading and math last year was 62 percent, that was outstanding compared to other schools,” Mahmoud surmises. “But what about those 38 percent of students that weren’t proficient? How can we up the number of students that are proficient? I am going to continue to try to improve on this thing until we are at 100 percent. When I am at that 90 to 100 percent, and not just one year but doing that consistently, then I wouldn’t flinch when people say you are doing a great job. We are not there yet.”


According to Mahmoud, a former Minneapolis school superintendent once told him that Harvest Prep “represents a beacon of hope in our community. I’m humble by that and take that very serious, because in order for our children and our educators, then our parents, to feel that they can be successful, they need to see success.”


Wilson says he wants Higher Ground to be “the biggest little school in Minnesota.”


Charles Hallman welcomes reader responses to challman@spokesman-recorder.com.