After six years leading one of Minneapolis' most successful charter school networks, Hiawatha Academies executive director Eli Kramer will step down in June.
The south Minneapolis school network is growing fast with the opening of a middle school in fall 2018 and the unveiling of its crown jewel: the Hiawatha Collegiate High School building, which will open in southeast Minneapolis next fall. The search for Kramer's replacement will kick off in January.
In Kramer's time as executive director, the network doubled from two to four schools and prepared to mark its 10-year history with several milestones: the new high school building, a second middle school in 2018 and a first graduating class crossing the stage in 2019. Kramer said the schools' new chapter gave him an opportune window to step down.
"I realized the best thing both for me and for the organization was to pass the torch now, when the future of Hiawatha is so bright," Kramer said in an interview Monday. He said he's still weighing whether to stay in education after about 15 years in the field.
Hiawatha Academies aims to "permanently disrupt educational inequity by ensuring a great school for every child," according to a news release. The four schools counted 1,200 students last year — mostly Hispanic, almost all of whom qualify for lunch subsidies. For years, the network's math test scores were above state averages, with a slight dip in recent years.
With Kramer at the helm, the network also established a track record of test scores that beat the odds for schools with high numbers of students in poverty, according to an annual Star Tribune analysis.
"Eli Kramer is a true community hero who has built schools that are some of the most successful incubators for nurturing new young minds," said R.T. Rybak, former Minneapolis mayor and president/CEO of the Minneapolis Foundation.
The road to promise
Kramer started at the network in 2011 as a consultant and became executive director in 2012. In his time at the schools, Hiawatha grew from 40 full-time staff to roughly 240, quadrupled its student enrollment and partnered with the Minneapolis Public Schools, according to a school release.
He noted a recent drop in test scores, attributing it to missing the mark on clarity and consistency in its strategy. State test data show that for the second year in a row, Hiawatha's overall math test scores dipped below state averages this year. In previous years, more than half of all Hiawatha's students were proficient on math tests.
Kramer promises higher scores again.
This year, two of its schools, Morris Park and Northrop, made the Star Tribune's annual "beating the odds" list of high-poverty schools performing better than expected. The two schools beat the odds in math.
Former Minneapolis Public Schools Superintendent Bernadeia Johnson pointed to the school's academic growth and said Kramer was enthusiastic about working with the district during her tenure.
"Eli reaches out to people," she said.
As for his legacy, Kramer said he's proud of helping Hiawatha's high schoolers to graduation. Hiawatha had planned to delay construction of the high school for a few years, but Kramer pushed to step up the opening after parents told him that the absence of a Hiawatha-brand high school for eighth-graders would be "like sending them into an orphanage, essentially, after they've been in a home for this long," he said.
Graduation a milestone
Beyond the academics there is lightheartedness, too. Students once tipped Kramer off on a rumor about his former long hairdo: He must be growing it out for graduation. He went along with the gossip for a while but couldn't take it anymore. He chopped his hair off a couple of months ago.
But that doesn't mean he isn't looking forward to Hiawatha Collegiate High School's first graduation in 2019. He's been dreaming of milestones like this and calls the high school construction "a manifestation of that dream."
"When the kids walk across the stage next year will be probably the most important manifestation since I started," Kramer said.