What does increase in Mpls, St. Paul & Minn charter enrollment, and decrease in district enrollment mean?

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As thousands of people come to Minneapolis June 19-22 for a national charter conference, they (and Minnesotans) might be interested in this:

* Over the last decade the number of K-12 students attending charters in Minneapolis has increased by more than 9,000, from 1,921 in school year 2001-02 to 11,125 in school year 2011-12.  Over the same time period, the number of k-12 students attending district public schools in Minneapolis decreased from 47,658 to 33,503

* Over the last decade, the number of K-12 students attending charters in Minnesota increased about 29,000, while the number of K-12 students attending Minnesota district schools has declined by more than 45,000.  From 2001-02 to 2011-12, Minnesota charter enrollment grew from 10,162 to 39,129, while district K-12 enrollment declined, 831, 535 to 785,729.

While the majority of Minnesota youngsters still attend district public schools, trends are clear and strong.

The numbers come from a new study our Center did, based on data from the Minnesota Department of Education website. The report is available at www.centerforschoolchange.org

What does this trend mean for families, and for Minnesota public education? Widespread adoption of cell phones and computers helps explain these startling statistics.   Many families are looking for something different, and they hope, better.

But neither district nor charter public schools are always “better.” “Charter public school” like “district public school” tells you nothing about the curriculum, philosophy or instructional approach. Comparing is about as useful as trying to decide which has better gas mileage: leased or purchased cars? Because there are enormous differences within each category, the comparison does not make sense.

But the charter movement has allowed educators and parents to create new, and in some cases, more personalized, distinctive options. That has helped many youngsters and provided valuable opportunities for educators.

That’s in part why Minnesota charter K-12 enrollment rose in the last decade, while district K-12 enrollment declined. It also helps explain why charter enrollment in US charters rose from less than 100 students twenty years ago, to more than two million in the 2011-12 school year. Many Minnesota charters offer something “different.” For example:

* YInghua offers a Chinese immersion school in Minneapolis

* St Paul Conservatory for Performing Arts in downtown St. Paul Arts charter makes great use of the nearby Ordway Theater and wonderful nearby dance studios.

* Lakes International offers an elementary Chinese and Spanish immersion in Forest Lake.

*  Montessori schools can be found in Swan River School in Monticello and World Learner, Elementary/Middle School in Chaska.

*  There are “classical” schools like Spectrum, a small high school in Elk River, Seven Hills, an elementary school in Bloomington, St. Croix Prep, a K-12 in Stillwater, and Cologne Academy in Cologne and Nova in St. Paul

* Mainstream is an Arts High School in Hopkins, and New Heights is a small, personalized K-12 School in Stillwater.

* Northwest Passage High School in Coon Rapids features extensive travel.

*  Minnesota New Country has pioneered the Hope Study and project-based learning and has helped start more than 30 other district and charters around the country.

* A Minneapolis charter, Southside Family School, has an extensive civil rights curriculum and takes students periodically to visit legendary civil rights sites in the South.

* Harvest Prep in Minneapolis is constantly on Minnesota’s “Beat the Odds” school list and has been asked by Minneapolis Public Schools to help create other schools in the city.

* Trio/Wolf Creek is an online school based in Chisago City.

Given the array of public charter school options, wise school districts have responded, in part, by offering distinctive programs. For example:

  • St. Paul offers a French Immersion, a Hmong Magnet and two Montessori Elementary Schools and some instruction in Chinese.
  • Minneapolis is opening a new Site governed French immersion school.  The Minneapolis Federation of Teachers has strong promoted the idea of “site governed” schools, based in part of ideas developed by the Boston Federation of Teachers, called “Pilot Schools”  Minneapolis also offers some Montessori elementary schools
  • ISD 196 (a suburban District) offers the “Zoo School” for 11th and 12th graders, and Anoka-Hennepin offers the STEP program for high school students.
  • Forest Lake has a Montessori option. Minnetonka provides a Chinese option. Edina offers a French Immersion elementary school.

At least some of these, such as the Forest Lake Montessori and the Minneapolis French Immersion, were opened in response growth in popularity of charters.  The charter movement has helped some educators and districts recognize that there is no single perfect kind of school for all students. Some educators have recognized that identical does not mean not equal educational opportunity. Saying “one size or format fits all” is like saying everyone can wear a size 8 shoe comfortably.

As Governor Mark Dayton and Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius have suggested, we should learn from the most effective, while offering opportunities to develop new approaches (as has been done with phones and computers). Enrollment trends suggest that wise educators will look for more effective ways to organize learning and teaching. Students don’t need more district or charter public schools. They need more personalized, excellent public schools.