Trying to beat the achievement gap with “self-governed” schools


Could the secret to closing the achievement gap for struggling school children in North Minneapolis be French?

Oui, say supporters of a plan to open a new French immersion elementary school next fall.

“I’m very interested in the proposal,” Minneapolis Board of Education member Pam Costain said. “I think it shows a lot of creativity and moxie.”

If Costain and her fellow board members give the proposal the go-ahead on February 6, the Pierre Bottineau French Immersion School would be the state’s first “self-governed” school.

Under state law, self-governed schools are public schools run by district teachers – except these teachers are supposed to have more-than-usual agency over their schools’ budget, curriculum and goals.

When a team of area educators recently submitted a request to open Pierre Bottineau, they did so as part of the district’s fledgling New Schools initiative. Introduced last year, the New Schools project is supposed to improve the district’s lowest-performing schools and improve the education of its most faltering students.

Part of the project – a part that hasn’t yet been publicly started – involves restructuring the lowest-performing 25 percent of schools, said Jon Bacal, executive director of the Office of New Schools.

Another element, he said, is opening new schools in typically under-served neighborhoods.

These new schools could be contract or charter schools, which are models that already exist in the state. Or, as in the case of Pierre Bottineau, they would be teacher-led, self-governed institutions.

Costain said only two applications are going to be considered at the February 6 meeting: that of Pierre Bottineau, which would open in fall of 2010, and that of the Minnesota School of Science, a K-12 charter school that would open in August of 2011. 

Looking toward the more immediate option, some wonder if the French immersion model is the best way to reach North Minneapolis kids, many of whom are of minority backgrounds and come from low-income homes.

Anthony Wagner is president of Pillsbury United Communities, a community-building nonprofit with neighborhood centers in North and South Minneapolis.

He had not heard of this particular school’s plan before he was contacted by the Daily Planet, but Wagner, who said he’s worked in North Minneapolis for “a lifetime,” did question the appropriateness of using the French immersion model here.

“My guts tell me that these programs don’t tend to draw from the poorest people in the district,” he said.

Such programs presume parents have an active interest in cultivating their child’s fluency in a second language, he said.

“Low-income folks,” he added, often tend to “be struggling with other issues.”


Aiming to swipe the slate clean

Last summer, eight teacher teams brought their draft plans for starting self-governed schools before the board, Costain said.

Only one of those teams, Pierre Bottineau’s, has survived this far.

Costain described the board’s initial reaction to Pierre Bottineau as “lukewarm,” as they thought it wouldn’t reach the New Schools program’s “target audience.”

She said Pierre Bottineau’s team has since reached out to French-speaking African immigrants, as well as to African American residents, to spread awareness of their plans.

“I think they came (back) with a much-improved application,” Costain said, adding that internal and external evaluators have also said the plan has merit.

Across the river

In St. Paul, L’Etoile du Nord French immersion school is a district school with 535 students in grades K-6, L’Etoile du Nord has an enrollment of about 35 percent students of color, in a district that is more than 70 percent students of color.  About 24 percent of its students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch. The school has consistently high achievement scores across all groups.

Pierre Bottineau’s planners pledge their school would help less-advantaged students improve upon their chances for success.

Barbara Anderson, the elementary French intern coordinator at Normandale French Immersion school in Edina, is one of four area educators who submitted the proposal.

If approved, Pierre Bottineau will serve approximately 100 students in kindergarten and first grade during its inaugural year. It will add one grade per year after that, ending at fifth grade.

A veteran foreign-language educator, Anderson said immersion programs help level the playing field.

“Nobody knows how to read French; nobody knows how to speak French,” she said. “So there isn’t this enormous gap between people who haven’t had the same socio-economic backgrounds.”

Another of the plan’s authors is Christina Maynor, a north Minneapolis resident who previously taught French at Patrick Henry High School and now teaches at South High.

Like Anderson, Maynor believes immersion can be an equalizing force.

“Nobody has a leg up because everybody is starting from scratch,” Maynor said. “And then you have high expectations about what we’re all going to do together, and then you support that foundation.”

When teachers start off like this, Maynor said, “then they find that students achieve in equitable ways and at an equitable pace.”

At a January 14 meeting about the New Schools program, planning team member JoEllyn Jolstad, a family and community liaison for Minneapolis Public Schools, said the French immersion model is “proven.”

Nationwide, students at most French immersion schools score higher on state reading and math tests compared to their peers at non-immersion schools, she said. At French immersion schools in other urban districts, African American and economically disadvantaged students tend to score higher than their non-immersion school peers on these same tests, she said.

In kindergarten through second grade, Pierre Bottineau would use a “total immersion” approach, in which all subjects are taught in French. English instruction would begin in third grade, and the school day will be 40 minutes longer than that of regular Minneapolis public schools.

Immersion works, Jolstad said, because children get twice as much language-arts instruction. Because many English words derive from French, learning French can greatly help students with their English-acquisition skills, she said.

“Their brains are working double-duty,” Jolstad said. “They’re thinking in two languages at the same time.”


Selling their school

The full classrooms of the French immersion schools in Edina and St. Paul suggest it won’t be too hard to recruit students to attend Pierre Bottineau.

At the January14 meeting were several such parents, including Natalie Burns, who had her eight-week-old daughter, Paige Gloudemans, in tow. Burns and several of her friends, all of whom have young children, came to support the plan at the behest of a bilingual peer.

“It’s so important to start them young because that’s just when they’re going to soak it up,” said Burns, a resident of Minneapolis’s Fulton neighborhood.
Maynor admits that it will likely prove more difficult to sell the French immersion model to parents of students who fall in the “lowest-performing” category, but, she said, it’s not impossible.

“I think you start with this question: ‘What do you want for your kids?'” she said.

Most parents, she said, will say they want their children to go to a great school with great teachers, they want their children to reach their full learning potential, and they want their children to be in a healthy social situation.

“And then you say, ‘In my experience, working with kids in your neighborhood, I’ve seen this make a difference for kids,'” Maynor said.

In her professional life, Chanda Baker works as a charter school authorizer for Pillsbury United Communities. She said she spoke with the Daily Planet about these issues, though, as a parent of five school-age children, as well as a longtime resident of North Minneapolis.

Baker agreed that French immersion might be a “tough sell” for many North Minneapolis families, who are more used to hearing Spanish, Somali or Hmong languages spoken in their neighborhoods.

But skepticism about the school could evaporate, she said, if its planners reach out and make good connections with the community.

“I think African American parents want their children to be successful,” Baker said. “They’re open to the range and breadth of options that every other parent would want to their child to be exposed to.”

In the face of questions about Pierre Bottineau, Costain said it’s just one part of the district’s larger plans to reach low-achieving students through pioneering means.

“We are basically willing to be very creative and innovative,” she said, “and this is not something that a lot of districts have done.”