University charter school grant a success



The phrase, “non-traditional public education” may seem contradictory, but the success of five new urban charter schools launched by the University of Minnesota in St. Paul has shown that the two terms can coexist, and can do so successfully.

The Star Schools Project was launched in 2002 by the Center for School Change with a $3.025 million grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

The grant, which was part of a bold education initiative by the foundation, sought to increase high school graduation and college entrance rates in public schools throughout the nation.

Two years into the project, Great River School and Minnesota North Star Academy opened their doors, and three more joined them over the next two years.

Because the charter schools receive state funding, they are all considered public schools. They are open to all students, are free of tuition and there is no admission test. Each school enrolls fewer than 400 students, and slots are filled on a first-come first-serve basis. When applicant numbers rise above capacity, students are placed on a waiting list and are then selected through a lottery system.

Seven years after the initial grant, Joe Nathan, the director of the Center for School Change, which is part of the Humphrey Institute, said he believes the program has been a success.

“Part of what the University of Minnesota and the Humphrey Institute try to do is to make a real difference in peoples’ lives. And the feedback that we’ve received is that this project did.” Nathan said.

According to results released by the Minnesota Department of Education on Friday, the average graduation rate at the four Star Schools that had graduates in 2008 was 96 percent. This compares to the state average among public high schools, which is about 92 percent.

Additionally, the percent of graduates who enrolled in some form of higher education is significantly higher ─ nearly 86 percent among 2009 Star School graduates compared to the most recently available 2006 state average of 65.3 percent.

While all are part of the Star Schools Project, each of the five schools vary significantly in their missions. Augsburg Fairview Academy and Twin Cities Academy High School focus on college and career readiness, while Great River School functions as a Montessori junior-senior high school.

Minnesota North Star Academy is unique in its role, serving primarily hard-of-hearing, deaf and deaf-blind students.

The Saint Paul Conservatory for Performing Artists trains its students in various types of performing arts, from instrumental to theater and dance.

Though the grant ended June 30, all five schools are now self-sustaining and will remain open.


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