Nearly every student at Bethune Community School lives in poverty. At least a quarter are homeless or at risk of losing their housing. Test scores are among the worst in Minneapolis, with only a tiny fraction of students performing at grade level.
Across town at Hiawatha Community School, outbursts and unruly behavior are rarely a problem. Classroom activities are often filled with parents. Students often score higher on their standardized tests than most schools in the district.
Bethune and Hiawatha embody the divide that has gripped Minneapolis schools for decades as leaders grapple with one of the worst achievement gaps in the country.
In November, a Star Tribune analysis found that teachers at Hiawatha had the highest evaluation scores in the district, while Bethune had the lowest. Critics said the evaluations, which include test data and classroom reviews, do not capture the complexities and challenges that teachers face in the classroom. They said this is especially true at a school like Bethune, which has very young, inexperienced teachers and a challenging student body.
A closer look inside a classroom reveals how stark the differences are between the two schools. At Hiawatha, Peggy Winchell, a 32-year veteran teacher, has more time to wrestle with the curriculum and manage parent involvement for her class of 25 kindergartners. At Bethune, Kristin Shanley struggles to create a cohesive learning environment amid violent tantrums and students who disappear from class when their parents abruptly move.
“Sometimes their home lives are just so hard,” said Shanley, who has taught at the school for five years. “And we’re supposed to work miracles on them.”
Shanley’s room at Bethune was dimly lit on a recent visit. Classical music played in the background, with a subtle scent of vanilla in the air. It is all designed to keep the class calm and relaxed, which can be a struggle for her students. Shanley teaches science to every student in the school.
The students’ job this day: Find out which objects stick to the small U-shaped magnets, remember those objects, and then draw them on paper. Many students failed to record their observations.
Shanley said many of her students are not only performing below grade level in science, but also in math and reading.
“I’ve known these kids for a long time, so I know their struggles,” said Shanley, who has been a teacher for seven years. But, she says, “I still have high expectations of them, with the work they are turning in.”
Winchell’s 32 years of experience helped as she tried to teach her kindergartners the meaning of “more than” and “less than.”
“I assessed every kid and all but a handful of kids didn’t get it at all,” she said.
In January, she retaught the lesson. This time around, nearly all of her students got it.
January was also time to assess the students’ reading level. At the beginning of the school year, the majority of the students were not reading. By mid-January, more than 80 percent of Winchell’s class were reading well above grade level.
Winchell says she is able to do her job well because everyone at Hiawatha plays a critical role. Parents are involved. Teachers analyze the best way to educate every one of their students. And the principal supports those teachers.
“It only works because we work together at it,” Winchell said.
Parents dedicate their time, money and attention to the school. Assemblies are always packed with parents. They attend parent-teacher conferences. Parent e-mails to Winchell are constant.
Before the holiday break in December, gingerbread houses were built in nearly every classroom. Weeks before the kids were set to build the houses, parents donated several large boxes full of frosting, candies and graham crackers.
On the day the students put them together, 19 parents were there to help their kids assemble the houses. Each table had at least five parents.
“If I am not doing anything, I can really just be the manager over the whole thing,” Winchell said. “The parents were just really happy to be helping the kids.”
Parents also help support the classroom through donations to the school’s parent-teacher organization. The organization raised more than $19,000 in a single event, according to its website. That event accounts for half of its funding.
This school year, Winchell and the other kindergarten teachers wanted multicolored carpets for their classrooms. The PTO agreed to pay for the carpets and offered to buy them for every teacher in the building.
There is no active fundraising from the PTO at Bethune.
Parents often have little connection to the classroom. If they do, it’s often because they are bombarded with disciplinary and behavioral concerns about their children.
The Bethune teachers are trying to change that by making a point to call or send notes to give positive feedback.
Once, Shanley called five parents in one evening and left voice mails for all of them. One mother called back and was immediately defensive.
“I made so many calls, I didn’t know who her child was, and she didn’t want to tell me her child’s name,” Shanley said.
But the mother mentioned that she had three children at Bethune, and Shanley was able to identify the child, whose name is Special.
“I said, ‘I just wanted you to know Special had a fabulous day with me,’ ” Shanley said. “Everything about our conversation changed.”
Before coming to Hiawatha, Winchell used to have to make disciplinary calls when she taught at Richard Green Central Park Community School and other more challenging schools. At Green, she saw fights in the hallways, a student broke into her classroom with a butter knife and one student claimed that a classmate threatened to kill her. Winchell found out the girl made up the story.
“Sometimes you call home and the parents are swearing. You get burned out on that,” Winchell said. “Now I’m not going to call that parent because you see that they are part of the problem. I don’t get that here.”
So when she got the opportunity to work at a school closer to home, to teach her favorite grade level, she could not pass it up.
“It took me 17 years to move to a building that I had a choice to go to,” Winchell said. “To have a choice about where you work is the only leeway you have as a teacher.”
‘Not for everybody’
Winchell has a notebook on her desk where she notes if a child is acting out. At the beginning of the school year, she had a few notes written down for several of her students. One student couldn’t keep his hands to himself. Another needed to be reminded to be quiet. But none of those behaviors warranted a call home or even to the office. By December, her notes were almost nonexistent.
“If I need help with behavior, I can call the front office,” Winchell said. “I haven’t needed anybody for several years.”
When Shanley first began her teaching career, she taught in Stillwater and these types of behavioral problems were rare. Yet, Shanley says she does not intend to go teach at another school in Minneapolis. Her dedication to her students has earned her a nomination for teacher of the year.
“I feel like I’m making more of an impact on these students because I don’t think everybody can teach here,” she said of Bethune. “It’s not for everybody.”
In a single day in December, Shanley had to make four phone calls to a behavior support specialist. Typically, she makes one or two calls a week.
From the moment her class started during a recent visit, two second-graders in a class of 15 were not getting along. Shanley tried to keep them apart, but that only lasted until students moved on to their science experiment. Then the shouting began.
“Man, you ain’t my boss,” a student yelled as he stormed out of the room and began shouting and kicking the wall. Shanley called a behavior staffer to intervene. Shanley tries to reduce the behavior problems by showing the love and affection that they may not get at home.
One way she does that is by giving her students socks.
It started last school year when a second-grader took off her shoes during a relaxation exercise. Shanley thought the girl was wearing wooden clogs. But the girl told her she didn’t have any socks, so she took brown paper towels, and wet them to form to her tiny feet.
Since then, Shanley has given out 150 pairs of socks. Her friends and family now give her pairs of socks as gifts, bringing her stockpile to more than 200 pairs.
This school year, she gave striped, pink and purple fuzzy socks to a fourth-grader named Precious.
Precious was one of Shanley’s star students last year. But something troubling happened at home over the summer. Shanley declined to offer specifics.
Precious returned to Bethune this school year and was rolling her eyes at Shanley and acting like a “diva.”
One day, Shanley pulled her into the hallway and gave her the long, warm socks. She told Precious she wanted things to be the way they were before, and for Precious to trust her and know that she was there to help.
Precious’ attitude changed the next day, Shanley said. Precious was no longer acting out. She began leaving notes for Shanley.
Before winter break, Precious sent Shanley a note. “Thank you Mrs. Shanley for loving me. For caring for me. For giving me them socks. For giving me every single peace of your heart,” she wrote. “For accepting me into your class to learn. For giving me every peace of your love. And number one for thanking God for being my teacher.”
Precious never returned to class after break. Shanley later learned Precious’ parents lost their home and moved in with a relative.
Precious will turn up in a new school, with a new teacher and with a pair of fuzzy socks.
“I’d like to think I have impacted these kids in some way,” Shanley said. “Perhaps in the future they will show compassion and continue to try their best in their education.”