Proposal puts Urban League Academy on short notice to prove itself

  • Article by: STEVE BRANDT , Star Tribune
  • Updated: March 25, 2014 - 7:46 PM

Urban League alternative school for struggling students may have staved off closure by Minneapolis school board.

An alternative school for about 100 students run by the Minneapolis Urban League has flunked a district evaluation of schools for students who struggle in conventional high school.

“Urban League scored at or near the bottom of every outcome,” district official Thomas Franta summarized recently. He initially recommended that the district end its contract with the 43-year-old school, which gets more than $700,000 in funding from the district.

But the Urban League may have staved off the school closure after its representatives successfully lobbied several board members, and also Superintendent Bernadeia Johnson, who recommended that the district give the Urban League Academy another year to prove itself.

The school board is scheduled to vote on new contracts for seven of its alternative schools on April 8.

“This wasn’t really a power play. We listened,” school board Chair Richard Mammen said, referring to the Urban League.

Meanwhile, Urban League officials said that they felt blindsided by the district. They say that they’re all for accountability, but they needed more notice about district standards and more than just the current school year to meet them.

“This is about making sure you’re treated fairly,” Urban League board member Clinton Collins Jr. “There’s real anger about this.”

The district historically has made three-year contracts with its dozen alternative schools, and last year renewed about half of them for two years.

This year, Urban League Academy is one of two schools recommended for only one-year contracts; the other, the early-grades Tatanka Academy, is likely to convert to a charter school, the district said. Two others are recommended for a two-year renewal, and three more for three-year extensions.

The dust-up comes after the district began working with the locally based Metropolitan Federation of Alternative Schools on crafting ways to evaluate alternative schools, which have different standards than traditional schools.

For example, they are likely to have lower graduation rates and do more poorly on state tests because the students at alternative schools struggled in traditional classrooms.

Anne Long, a federation board member, said the new measurement system is something long sought by the federation.

“We’re very pleased with it,” she said. Among the measures are how many credits were earned on average by a school’s students, their attendance, and how many dropped out or stayed in school. One measure showed that the league’s academy was the only alternative school not to keep up with average credit growth for students enrolled all last school year.

But Urban League officials say that the district left them hanging between a meeting last fall at which it talked about both more accountability and resources, and a meeting shortly before the March school board meeting, at which they got both school performance data and the nonrenewal recommendation.

“To get this kind of data sprung on you a week before it’s presented to the board is a problem,” said Scott Gray, the Urban League’s president and chief executive. But Franta, who supervises alternative schools as the district’s director of new schools, differed: “I thought it was clear that the bulk of the information that we were gathering would be used to shape decisionmaking.”

Urban League officials emphasize that they’re educating a population of mostly black students who arrive at their academy late in their school years way behind on credits after attending an average of four previous schools. They say they’d like time to create a new approach to engaging academy students through a revamped program that would mesh entrepreneurial opportunities outside the school with a tailored math and science curriculum. They also complain that the district has held back recently on referring them students from district schools. The district responded that it wants to finish the renewal decision first.

There is precedent for a school to rebound from dismal results. Friendship Academy, a high-poverty South Side charter school authorized by the district, was put on a year’s probation by the district in 2011, and now posts spectacular results on standardized tests.

 

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