A north Minneapolis school at Olson Memorial Hwy. and Humboldt Avenue has demographics that seem a sure predictor of our state's most intractable education problem. The student population there is 99 percent black and 91 percent poor, and about 70 percent of the children come from single-parent families.
Such "racial isolation" is widely considered a formula for defeat -- a hallmark of the cavernous "achievement gap" that separates poor, minority students from their more affluent white peers. In recent decades, Minnesota has spent billions of dollars attempting to narrow the gap but has little to show for it.
That's why the achievements of the school I just described should be shouted from the rooftops. In this year's state math tests in grades three through eight, this school outperformed every metro-area school district, including Edina and Wayzata. Its students outperformed all state students in reading proficiency (77 percent to 75 percent), and state white students in math proficiency (82 percent to 65 percent).
This extraordinary school is Harvest Preparatory School, a K-6 charter with five programs, including Best Academy, a K-8 boys program.
Black males are among our state's lowest-performing groups of students, but at Best Academy, 100 percent of eighth-grade boys scored proficient in reading. "Best Academy has the highest proportion of African-American boys of any institution in Minnesota," says founder and director Eric Mahmoud. "The only institution that competes with us is the prison system."
How have Mahmoud and his team worked this magic? Mahmoud is an electrical engineer by training. "At the factory I used to run, if we had a failure rate of 0.5 percent, we'd shut down the line until we figured out the problem," he says. "In our education system, we're failing with 40, 50, 60 percent of our African-American children, but we keep the system that turns out the same product, year after year."
Mahmoud's new educational system includes the following components:
•Top-notch instruction: Every day, Harvest devotes 100-minute time blocks to reading and math. In early grades, the school teaches phonics and math facts using "drill and kill" methods that would drive most education professors shrieking from the room. But the "automaticity" that results liberates students for the challenges that await them -- from deciphering Emily Dickinson poems in fifth grade to mastering algebra in eighth grade.
• A laser-like focus on data: Harvest continually assesses students on a host of measures so it can implement targeted interventions before kids fail. Teachers are evaluated based on their students' learning gains.
• A calendar that gives students the time they need to master what they need to know: Harvest is in session 200 days a year, from 8 a.m. to 4:45 p.m. The key to academic success, says Mahmoud, is "great teaching, and more of it."
But Harvest Prep doesn't stop with academic excellence. At its heart is a school culture that instills moral character.
The process begins with what Mahmoud calls "the power of the uniform" -- no saggy pants or short skirts here. Middle-school boys, for example, wear red ties, khaki slacks and blazers. A culture of manners and civility permeates the building. Students are addressed as "scholars," say "please" and "thank you," and greet visitors politely. Weekly ceremonies recognize children who achieve academic success through hard work, who sacrifice to help struggling classmates, or who demonstrate moral courage and truthfulness.
The obligation to "give back" is constantly discussed. "We don't just want great test-takers and smart children -- we want children who do good things," says Mahmoud. He cites Mary McLeod Bethune, a 19th-century black education reformer. A sign above the door of a school she founded read, "Enter to learn; go forth to serve."
Today, lots of folks -- including school board members, superintendents and state officials -- insist we can't narrow the achievement gap without boatloads of new money. Some say that if poor, minority children are to learn, they must be bused far from home to sit next to kids whose skin color or income bracket is different. Few talk much about teaching kids the vital importance of hard work, self-discipline, rejecting victimhood and taking responsibility for their own success.
At Harvest Prep, students know better. Every morning, as the Best Academy boys shout their creed together, they say these words:
"We are boys striving to become great men. We are the best, because we work hard at it; we make no excuses; we ensure that we are always prepared; we will uplift each other; we are our brother's keeper. ...
"We will be honest in our words and honorable in our actions. ... We will respect our parents and honor our elders. ...
We are the best, not because we say it -- because the best is what we do!"
Katherine Kersten is a senior fellow at the Center of the American Experiment. The views expressed here are her own. She is at firstname.lastname@example.org.