For starters, the FAIR school has an artsy look to it. Its explosion of vivid colors, mixture of glass and brick facades, and dizzying geometric shapes seem to borrow more from a modern art museum than the standard brick-and-mortar middle school. Inside, "media arts" students prowl the hallways, handheld video cameras at the ready to record people or images for class projects.
"You combine words and images to make one meaning," said seventh-grader Harrison Barber, from Minneapolis, who was scouring the building for the right visuals to illustrate a poem he has written called "Tears of Hate."
Other students carry musical instruments, or dress up as historical characters in the school's main entrance area as part of the "Fourth Grade Wax Museum" project.
One classroom has replaced the typical stiff-backed chairs with huge yellow rubber balls, called stability balls. Sitting on the balls, said seventh-grade English teacher Windemere Coffey, improves posture and gives her students -- especially the boys -- a channel for the physical energy that might otherwise disrupt class.
"Nobody's late to English class," she said. "They want all the time on the balls they can get."
FAIR stands for Fine Arts Interdisciplinary Resource school, and the school's purpose is twofold: To meet high academic standards through the use of the arts, and to serve as a desegregation magnet for kids of all races from Minneapolis and Minneapolis' western and northern suburbs.
The 8-year-old school was recently recognized by the U.S. Department of Education as one of only six schools nationwide that should serve as models for magnet schools. According to the Department of Education, the six schools were chosen for strong student achievement, sustained success and their ability to bring white and minority students together under one roof.
Located in Crystal, the FAIR school is part of the West Metro Education Program (WMEP), a consortium of Minneapolis schools and 10 north and west suburban school districts aimed at achieving voluntary desegregation. Each district is allotted a specified number of slots at the FAIR school based on its student population. Out of its 550 students in grades four through eight, 218 come from Minneapolis schools, 74 from the Robbinsdale district, 49 from Wayzata schools, and the rest from other WMEP districts and a smattering of other districts. There are waiting lists for many of the member districts.
"We have families from Minneapolis who wait two years, three years to get in," said FAIR school Principal Kevin Bennett, who is also principal of WMEP's other magnet school, the InterDistrict Downtown School, in Minneapolis. "Some never get an opportunity."
Sixty-three percent of FAIR's students are white. Eighteen percent are low-income. Ten to 12 percent are special education students.
Bennett, who is in his fourth year as FAIR's principal, cites statistics he said shows the school is working. For instance, he said, 87 percent of his students are proficient in reading, as measured by state tests, compared with the state average of 70 percent. Also, 80 percent of FAIR's black students are proficient in reading. That, Bennett said, is 40 percentage points higher than the state average for black students. Plus, the "achievement gap" between white and minority students has narrowed. According to the U.S. Department of Education, the test score achievement gap between students of different racial and ethnic groups at the school dropped from 30 to 7 percentage points in fifth-grade reading.
One factor that helps is parent involvement. For one thing, parents have to have shown at least some interest in education by finding the FAIR school option.
"I think that is a huge piece," Bennett said. "You're choosing to be here." School officials place parent participation in student-teacher conferences at 99 percent.
The arts at FAIR are intermingled with core courses such as English and social studies. For instance, Bennett said, four "elders" -- often students' grandparents -- are chosen to tell their life stories to students. The students' job is then to compose songs "that honor those elders." A student might write an English paper about something he or she learned in social studies. Then, the student would interpret that through music, theater, dance or art.
Students in grades four and five rotate through all the arts. By grade six, they are starting to focus on particular areas. In grades seven and eight, they are specializing in one or two of the arts.
The school seems to leave a lasting impact on the students who go through it.
Said Coffey: "I have kids who come back to see me and they're sophomores in college. That's almost unheard of for a middle school."
Norman Draper • 612-673-4547