New school year, new programs in Minneapolis, St. Paul

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As a host of new charter schools opened this year in the metro area, trying to lure disaffected parents away from public school systems, both Minneapolis and St Paul public schools are rolling out new programs and programming changes to keep these families – and the state funding dollars that come with them – in the school systems. In particular, Minneapolis public schools have fired the opening salvo in a multi-year offensive against their poor reputation, with a thorough-going re-design of district high schools.

St Paul

Fortunately for St. Paul Public Schools (SPPS), the district does not have as serious a credibility problem as Minneapolis Public Schools (MPS). St Paul school board members Tom Goldstein and Keith Hardy told this reporter in July that district leadership believes not all parents want a “one-size-fits-all” public school. Some parents, Hardy said, are looking for specific types of programming, such as gender-segregated education or career-specific training in high school, and the district has to provide these or risk losing these families to charter schools.

Three flagship programs are planned for the 2008-9 school year: establishing a combined, arts-focused K-8 curriculum at Linwood Elementary and Monroe Community School; establishing a combined PreK-8 curriculum focused on aerospace science at Farnsworth Magnet School and Cleveland Junior High; establishing a Hmong language and culture magnet program at Phalen Lake Elementary, drawing students east of I-35E.

All three new programs are based on successful smaller-scale programs run at single schools for several years.

In addition, two other major projects begin this year: North End Elementary is being converted into a gender-segregated academy for boys and girls in kindergarten through third grade, and Homecroft Elementary is being converted into a dedicated early learning facility, with particular focus on special-needs students. An arts-based “lab” at Homecroft will be available for all SPPS special needs students on a partial-day basis to pursue their academic goals through the arts, including poetry, dance, and drama.

Minneapolis

At MPS, the district has begun implementing the first phases of its High School Redesign Program, part of what Brenda Cassellius, Associate Superintendent for High Schools and Middle Schools, characterized as a thorough-going reform of the whole system in an attempt to earn back parents’ trust. The most significant change this year is the introduction of a new counseling and student support system, which Cassellius said, quantifies and tracks all students’ “attendance, academic, and behavior patterns” on a week-by-week basis. Administrative reviews of students who fall seriously “behind” in any one of these categories will happen every six weeks, and will help administrators, teachers, and counselors work together to intervene or offer extra help, before the student “slips through the cracks,” as Cassellius characterized it.

In addition, the small learning communities (SLCs) at the core of the last re-vamping of the high school curriculum in 2002 are getting worked over this year. Cassellius said successful SLCs successes be strengthened, some will be modified, and the weak SLCs will be eliminated. She cited the Health Careers program at Roosevelt High School and the Cosmetology program at Edison High School as examples of success that will be built on.

Cassellius also described a new high school transition program for rising ninth graders, held August 4-8 this year, focusing on high school socialization and high school study skills. “I’d say it’s a success,” Cassellius said. “From our ninth grade enrollment numbers, these kids are showing up!”

By and large, though, Cassellius said the district was moving to an “early college focus,” part of the “every child college ready by 2012” mandate from the district’s Strategic Plan, and an attempt to tackle the achievement gap between low-income black and Latino families and higher-income white families. Cassellius said MPS was working toward offering International Baccalaureate, Advanced Placement, early college classes, and career and technical education programs in all schools in order to, she said, “guarantee a high level of academic challenge” to all MPS parents, regardless of what school their children attend.

James Sanna is a freelance writer and an intern covering education issues for the Daily Planet.