After years of steady to spectacular growth, charter school enrollment has stalled in Minneapolis and St. Paul even as it continues to rise statewide.
Minneapolis charter enrollment rose by just 2 percent in the last two-year period after years of double-digit gains, according to enrollment figures compiled by the nonprofit Center for School Change. In St. Paul, home of the nation's first charter school, enrollment fell by 1 percent.
"There is very intense competition for youngsters in Minneapolis and St. Paul," said center director Joe Nathan.
He and others also attribute a slowdown in growth, both statewide and in the central cities, to delays caused by a 2009 state law revamping requirements for bodies that oversee charter schools and a temporary interruption of federal aid to charter startups.
Charter enrollment statewide grew by an average of 5.5 percent annually over the past two years. That's the lowest growth in more than a decade. It's still better than district-run schools, where statewide enrollment has slipped by 4 percent over the last five years.
The news of slowing charter enrollment comes as the leading national charter school organization prepares to meet in Minneapolis this month to mark the 20th anniversary of the nation's first charter school. That school, City Academy in St. Paul, remains in business. Charter schools operate independently and were launched in an effort to foster innovative ways of educating students.
Nationally, charter enrollment topped 2 million students for the first time this school year, according to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, which meets here June 19-22. It estimated a 12.5 percent growth in enrollment this year, more than twice Minnesota's rate.
Nathan said he's now encouraging creators of new charters to locate outside Minneapolis or St. Paul unless they have a strong track record or meet an unfilled niche. He thinks it will be difficult to find that niche with 30 charter schools in Minneapolis and 29 in St. Paul. He said that not finding enough students was one reason that Chicago-based Noble Network delayed its planned 2011 opening of a North Side charter school until this fall. It plans to open Minneapolis College Prep in the former Lincoln school.
But high-performing charter schools will continue to expand and attract students in both central cities, Nathan predicted. One example he cited, five-year-old Hiawatha Academy, has expanded its elementary enrollment of 420 mostly Latino and low-income students into the middle school grades. Most grades have waiting lists, of up to 30 students, said Eli Kramer, the Nokomis-area school's interim director. He said Hiawatha plans to grow its enrollment, which is mostly Latino and low-income, to a 2,000-student K-12 program over eight years.
Another highly regarded charter school, Harvest Prep, already has expanded its North Side operations to 900 students with three sister schools oriented toward gender-specific and East African programs. Working with the Minneapolis district, founder Eric Mahmoud has been approved to open four additional schools over 10 years. The first one opens this August with a planned enrollment of 180 K-2 students.
Mahmoud said that recruiting in north Minneapolis has been made more difficult by the twin punch of foreclosures that emptied homes and last year's tornado. "We were certainly hoping that enrollment would come faster than it is," he said. "There's gradual success, not overwhelming."
Statewide, charter schools continue to enroll more low-income and minority students than district schools, by considerable margins, according to center data collected from district reports to the state. They also enroll more students who are learning English and have about the same proportion of special education students. But while Minneapolis charters have more low-income, minority and limited-English students than district schools, the opposite is true in St. Paul.
Steve Brandt • 612-673-4438