Hiawatha Leadership Academy plans to close the achievement gap one student at a time

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At Hiawatha Leadership Academy (HLA), students, parents and teachers alike are aware of the clear bottom line. Staff will do whatever it takes for student success and if students aren’t learning, the school needs to change.

These and several other criteria are part of Hiawatha’s contract, which each student and parent must sign before the start of the school year. In Principal Shoua Moua’s office, the list of rules is written clearly in bright red pen: “No excuses—don’t even think about a blame game when students aren’t learning.” These no-nonsense guidelines are setting a promising pace for this one-month old Minneapolis charter school.

HLA, located at 4537 3rd Avenue South in Minneapolis, is one of the newest Minneapolis charter schools. Students had their first day of school on August 27, earlier than other public schools in the city. More hours each day, accompanied by a longer academic year, sets HLA apart from other public schools in the area. Classes run from 7:45 to 4:50, totaling a whopping 9 hours and 5 minutes, even for kindergartners. The school year is 182 days, 11 days more than any other school in Minneapolis. While some parents chose not to attend HLA because of the longer school day, most have welcomed it.

Gina Villarreal, who has a kindergarten son at HLA and serves as the only parent on HLA’s board, chose the school in part because of its extra class time. “I felt like my son was already advanced, so a half-day program wasn’t even an option. I liked the extended day [at HLA].”

When recruiting teachers, Moua was up front about what the expectations would be, the mission and the demanding schedule. “We talked about how hard it was going to be, but we all had a shared passion. We talked about what kind of opportunities do we want to provide for the students?”

At the root of making those opportunities available was Jon Bacal, HLA founder, president for advancement & operations, and also a parent in the neighborhood. He modeled the school’s goals on other successful schools around the country, such as Cesar Chavez Academy in Pueblo, Colorado, KIPP SHINE in Houston, and Milwaukee College Preparatory in Milwaukee. “Our mission is to create citizen scholars who contribute to the common good and become leaders in the community,” says Bacal. “We’d like to close the achievement gap and prepare everyone for college.”

The students dress in uniforms and are called not students, but scholars. Each classroom is assigned a college or university as inspiration. “We are going to take time this year to learn about college,” says Principal Moua, “we plan to take field trips to local colleges and create partnerships with these schools.”

The focus on higher education is due in part by the fact that only 5 percent of Black and Hispanic students in Minneapolis go to college. HLA has a diverse student body of 1/3 Latinos and 1/3 African-Americans with the rest made up of Caucasian, American Indian and Asian students. Ninety percent of the students are economically disadvantaged and receive free or reduced lunches. HLA’s goal is that all of its students eventually attend college.

Curriculum is based on ability level, highly focused on developing reading skills and grouped so that students who need special attention, such as English Language Learners (ELL) or Special Education students, receive it. Each class has around 25 students and has the help of two full-time Americorps Reading Corps Volunteers. The longer day also allows HLA to include art, music and Spanish in the curriculum. Kitty Taylor, a first-year kindergarten teacher, admits that sometimes the nine-hour day gets a bit stressful, but “while some other schools are cutting stuff out, we are able to teach it all.”

Now in its first year, HLA already has 150 kindergartners and first-graders, most of whom heard about the school through its mass mailings and door-to-door recruiting.

Minneapolis charter schools are gaining momentum and pulling students away from public schools. In 2006, there were 6,460 students in charter schools out of the 36,337 total students in Minneapolis. That means 15 percent of students in Minneapolis are choosing charters versus three percent in the entire state of Minnesota.

Why the switch? According to Laura Bloomberg, Associate Director for the Center for School Change, “not all charter schools are excellent just as not all public schools are excellent, but what charter schools do offer is choice. … Each charter school has a different focus.” The CSC, a program of the Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota, works with educators, parents and business people to increase student achievement and raise graduation rates. Its website shows an emphasis on working with charter schools.

For parent Villarreal, making the choice was easy. “There are so many options out there. I want to see how my children excel and where they fit in…I do think there’s a difference [between charter schools and Mpls public schools]. There’s more flexibility in charter schools,” Villarreal says, “[At HLA], I like the core knowledge aspect. They call them scholars. They’re expected to look and act a certain way and I think that’s teaching them as well.”

Villarreal’s enthusiasm for HLA is echoed by teacher Taylor, who loves the school’s open, team-oriented, atmosphere. Ultimately, though, Taylor’s focus is on the students. “I’m excited to see where they started and where they end.”