Heather Busch's school is all about college. College pennants and paraphernalia dominate the decor. Her fifth-graders will visit at least one college campus.
But they need to learn self-discipline to get there.
"Pencils down on two. One. Two," the teacher commands at the end of a class exercise.
The slap of pencils on desktops resounds precisely at the count of two.
Big goals and high expectations are the recipe for success at Hiawatha Academies, a Minneapolis school founded in 2007 that has emerged as an example of what can go right with charter schools.
The charter school movement pioneered in Minnesota passes the 20-year mark this fall without clear evidence that the schools are doing a better job than traditional public schools. Only about one-fourth of charter schools beat the state average for math proficiency; nearly one-third do so for reading. But as a group, charters score below state averages for reading and math, and some do significantly worse.
Some attribute the lackluster showing to their higher enrollment of minority and low-income students. But Hiawatha's mostly Latino students fit that description, and it far exceeds the academic records of comparable public schools.
Charter school advocates such as Charter School Partners say that's the kind of performance needed for the movement to prove its worth.
"We don't need any more mediocre or crappy charter schools," said Brian Sweeney, spokesman for the advocacy group. "They need to be like Hiawatha out of the box, hitting it out of the park."
A typical day for Ms. Busch
It's a few minutes before 7 a.m. when Busch, a fifth-grade reading teacher, wheels her Dodge Stratus into the parking lot that tucks under Adelante College Prep, the middle-school expansion of Hiawatha Academies.
Ten hours later, she's still in the building as a staff meeting pushes past 5 p.m. and she squeezes in a little more planning with her fellow teachers.
About half of the class on this September day wears navy blue polo shirts with Adelante's name, rewards for staying on task in school and getting homework done.
The classroom runs crisply. Students start the day burrowing into worksheets of short-answer and reasoning questions while Busch checks them in on homework completion, and how many minutes they spent reading at home. During one check-in with a student who didn't get his work done, Busch reinforces Hiawatha's no-excuses mentality:
What did you do to solve your problem?
Who could you have called?
What would you have told me?
What would I have said?
What did you learn?
Like all students, he has a cellphone number to reach his teacher for help. Busch averages about one call per weeknight.
Hiawatha recruits nationally for teachers successful with similar populations -- largely low-income and minority. Busch, a Rochester native and College of St. Benedict grad, taught in inner-city schools in Phoenix and Houston for four years before she was hired before last year.
Her first class of fifth-graders came to her with 84 percent proficiency in the state reading exam. But she advanced them nearly three grade levels on a national exam measuring growth during a school year.
Busch freely admits that she would not have performed as well fresh out of college, despite student teaching.
"This is a very difficult job. If anyone says, 'I wish I could work more,' they're not telling you the truth. If I'm going to be in teaching, this is the kind of work I want to do."
Busch has the skill to work with one group on reading skills while scanning the room for anyone off task. But Adelante's students display a rare focus, with hardly a set of eyes straying from their work.
"I don't want to underestimate the amount of energy I get from kids," Busch says.
Avoiding teacher burnout
Hiawatha also outperforms other charter schools on teacher turnover, which was a modest 14 percent last summer. That's comparable to the national norm found for district-run schools, but it's well below the 25 percent annual turnover rate for charters nationally.
Some researchers say the higher turnover rate shouldn't be surprising because that is common among younger teachers, and younger teachers tend to staff charter classrooms. But turnover is important because it may undermine student achievement.
Hiawatha leaders try to keep teachers from burning out despite classes that usually stretch from 7:25 a.m. to 4:15 p.m. and a summer with only seven weeks off for students.
That's done by building a culture of teamwork and nurturing a teacher's personal life, said Eli Kramer, Hiawatha's interim executive director. Hiawatha teachers get 10 paid personal days off in addition to the usual school breaks. It also helps if teachers are young and without children yet.
Salaries range from $35,000 to $52,000 annually, a little less than the range of $39,147 to $56,661 for comparable Minneapolis district teachers. But Hiawatha teachers also are eligible for bonuses that last year ranged from about $1,000 to about $8,200.
Alberto Monserrate, formerly Hiawatha's board chair and now chair of the Minneapolis school board, said he and Hiawatha's board used to worry about the effect of long days on its teachers. "They work at home. They work over the weekends," he said. "We were always surprised by the number of teachers coming back. I don't think anything motivates a teacher more than getting results. But still there's this constant worry about what can we do to keep this sustainable."
The results so far are impressive. At Hiawatha, 71 percent of students were proficient on the state's math exam, or 9 points above all state students. Science proficiency was 54 percent, again a few points ahead of the state average. Reading proficiency of 64 percent lagged the state by 12 points, but 21 percent of students get English Language Learner services, or triple the statewide share.
Hiawatha ranked at the top of high-poverty schools in 2011 on the state's new multiple measurement rating.
It plans to replicate this success beyond its flagship elementary and now Adelante. Another elementary and middle school are planned if money can be raised, and there's a target date of 2020 to open a small high school, bringing Hiawatha to 2,000 students.
Hiawatha's path to success -- recruiting, expectations and a bigger time commitment from teachers and students -- presents a model and a challenge for charter schools.
"Not all the schools that we open are schools that we would send our own children to," former Milwaukee superintendent Howard Fuller told a national charter school advocacy group at a 20th anniversary conference in June.
"We've got a lot of work to do in the charter movement yet to make sure every kid in a charter school has a quality education. We're nowhere near that."
Steve Brandt • 612-673-4438 Twitter: Brandtstrib