There’s a new school in town: Learning for Leadership Charter School will open in Northeast Minneapolis this fall. Initially it will serve students in grades K-10, but will add a grade each year until 2008, when it will serve grades K-12.
Charter schools are independent public schools that are created and organized by teachers, parents and community leaders. They receive public funding, but operate independently of the local school board. Charter schools offer an alternative to larger public schools, and are often created with an express purpose or philosophy. Local school boards grant each school renewable three-to-five-year charters that spell out its relationship with the public school district. The nation’s first charter school, City Academy, opened in Minnesota in 1991. Today there are 102 charter schools in the state, serving 19,000 students.
Bryan Rossi is the director of Learning for Leadership Charter School (LLCS). He will serve as the school administrator and facilitate the middle school program. “I spent 20-some years in the public education business, and I just believe in this approach to offer choice,” he said. “Not to replace public schools, but to offer choice.”
LLCS has been in the works for nearly five years. Rossi said residents, teachers and parents wanted to create an innovative learning environment that offered new angles to education. “For the developers, this is the dream school we’ve always wanted to be part of,” he said. “It’s about student-directed learning, service learning and authentic assessment. What that means is students and parents are intimately involved in their learning—that students, parents and teachers work together, and that the learning impacts the community. It’s not about getting an ‘A’, it’s about doing something for the community.”
The curriculum at LLCS is designed so that students can meet the state’s academic standards, and consists of personal learning plans as well as subject-based coursework. That includes inquiry-based, experiential learning for elementary and middle school kids, and project-based learning for high school students.
“The personal learning plan is definitely connected to the Minnesota state standards,” said Rossi. “That’s the number one piece. There’s nothing going on in the school that isn’t moving the kids toward accomplishing their state standards at any grade level.
But with a personal learning plan, the kids have a much different approach to how they address math, English, social studies and science. Let’s say, for example, that you have two kids whose families speak Hmong at home. You don’t want to cast one die for both kids, but rather create education plans according to their individual academic levels and interests.”
Rossi added that LLCS is prepared to educate a diverse student body. “We know in Northeast Minneapolis that we will have an immigrant population, so we aggressively sought out good people for ELL (English Language Learners). It’s so terrible to see a kid who’s so smart being hidden by artificial barriers.”
He also said that class size will be smaller than in public schools—about 15 to 20 kids per class, which includes both a teacher and what Rossi calls a paraprofessional, or teacher’s aide. Small class size resonated with Monica Dawson, who recently enrolled her son at LLCS. “I have one boy who will attend,” she said. “I like the small class size. Kids get lost in the bigger classrooms at the public schools.”
Monica’s sister Sandra Dawson agreed. Her two daughters, Renesha, 15, and Sidney, 10, will attend LLCS this fall. “Renesha is going into 9th grade and I wanted her in a smaller class,” she said. “I didn’t want her to go [to high school] for recreational purposes, but to enjoy learning. She’s asking questions [about LLCS] so I know she’s interested. She knows what she wants, and if she likes it, she will excel.”
Minnesota law prohibits charter schools from owning property or levying taxes, so LLCS will lease space at the Foley Manufacturing building near Columbia Golf Course at 3300 5th Ave. NE. “We have their administrative office space,” said Rossi. “This school will not look like a normal school—it will not be rows and rows of desks lined up in front of a blackboard, particularly in the high school area, where we have a much greater emphasis on student-directed learning. We have donated furniture and modular units so students will have their own space. We also have about 100 computers, so everyone will have a laptop or desktop computer.”
The school day at LLCS will run from 9:55 a.m. to 4:15 p.m. and free transportation is available to students who live in Minneapolis. Rossi said he’s excited about the late start time, because according to research, secondary students perform better later in the day. As for early morning students, he said the school will work with seniors to provide child care and supervision before classes begin.
“We are working with the RSVP program—the Retired Senior Volunteer Program,” he said. “They will be at school early in the morning, and with teacher supervision, will work with kids based on their personal learning plans. We’ve also applied for a grant that funds a federal work/study program for college students who would come to the school before their own classes. We’ll find out about that the first week in July.”
Rossi said charter schools are “truly consumer-driven education,” and that the success of LLCS rests with the students, teachers, parents and community members. “The beauty of [a charter school] is that it’s democratic. People vote with their feet. We can’t stay open if nobody comes. Parents in Minnesota have the option of sending their child to a public school, a private school, a charter school or a neighboring school district. That’s the school choice they have, and how Minnesota has chosen to create its education system.”