Hundreds of families are scrambling to find a new school for their children for the fall after a contentious vote recently to revoke a Minneapolis charter school of its accreditation.
The school’s board voted 3-2 in late June to close Learning for Leadership Charter School in northeast Minneapolis. Then both a review committee and Pillsbury United Communities board, a nonprofit that oversees the charter school, endorsed the decision to shut it down, agreeing it is a chronically low-performing school and a three-year improvement plan has shown no evidence of a turnaround.
Pillsbury, which oversees two dozen school systems in Minnesota, has shuttered two charter schools in the past five years. In 2013, it closed Quest Academy, a small St. Louis Park charter school that persistently failed to match the state’s academic goals. Banaadir College Preparatory, a school that struggled to gain momentum in the community, was closed before it opened in 2016.
“The key thing for us is that we have not seen a dramatic increase in academics because a lot of the test scores have been flat and some are worse than before the improvement efforts took effect,” said Antonio Cardona, director of the Office of Public Charter Schools at Pillsbury United Communities. “It was kind of a failure across the board to demonstrate success.”
Minnesota was once a pioneer in charter schools. But in recent years, the state has seen slow and steady growth of charters.
Currently, there are 164 charter schools that enroll about 56,000 students, according to the Minnesota Association of Charter Schools. At least 29 of those schools are in Minneapolis.
Each year about six to nine charter schools open in the state, while one or two close because of poor performance, messy governance or financial woes, the association said.
“If schools are given the opportunity to fix things … and they don’t fix them or it doesn’t improve, then it should close,” said Eugene Piccolo, the association’s director. “That’s the concept of chartering: there’s real accountability.”
Meanwhile, two other charter schools — MILROY Area Charter School and Big Picture Twin Cities, formerly known as Phillips Community School, also closed their doors at the end of June, according to state education officials. MILROY is in Milroy, Minn., and Big Picture Twin Cities is in Minneapolis.
This summer, Twin Cities International Elementary and Minnesota International Middle School, both in good academic standing and overseen by Pillsbury, have merged to become Twin Cities International School.
Learning for Leadership opened in the fall of 2006 and served students in kindergarten through 12th grades. Its students, a majority of whom were English-language learners, had struggled for years to meet state performance goals in math and reading.
In the 2016-17 school year, just 6 percent of the school’s students met or exceeded proficiency in math, compared with 59 percent statewide. In reading, 16 percent met or exceeded expectations, compared with 60 percent statewide.
The proficiency rates measure students meeting or exceeding grade level academic standards, as measured by the state tests in each subject.
In 2012, the Minnesota Department of Education identified Leadership for Learning as a “focus school” and in 2015, state education officials labeled the chronically failing charter school a “priority school,” requiring intensive help from the state’s Regional Centers of Excellence to get on track to meeting the state’s academic goals.
Shortly after, Pillsbury warned school leaders that Learning for Leadership was on the verge of failure and urged them to adopt a new turnaround strategy. But the school lacked stability, Cardona said, even utilizing untrained staff to deliver curricula, which led to students not meeting the state’s benchmarks for improvement from 2013 to 2017.
Schools are supposed to meet benchmarks in their charter contract to successfully operate, said Piccolo.
“That’s the deal with charter schools,” he said. “You’re freed up from some regulations or you’re freed up to do some things differently, and in exchange, you’re supposed to perform.”
In the next 30 days, Pillsbury officials plan to meet with the school’s board and with Great MN Schools, a nonprofit that invests in schools, to help families find new schools.
Meanwhile, Learning for Leadership officials have been directed to hire a school closure coordinator to manage the process.
Some people connected to the school welcome the decision, though they know it will include some hardship.
Community activists Mustafa Diriye and Khulia Pringle said parents and students will have the heaviest burden.
“A lot of families who don’t speak English are now scrambling to find schools for their kids,” said Pringle, president of a local advocacy group called the Office For Educational Advocacy and Racial Equity, who said she agrees with the closure.
Diriye echoed that sentiment: “These parents will need a lot of help, and the school has failed them for so many years.”