Minnesota changes the way it helps struggling schools

  • Article by: KIM MCGUIRE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: April 21, 2014 - 11:00 AM

Instead of imposing top-down rules, teams of specialists work to help schools find their own solutions.


Literacy Specialist Kristin Scherman, left, spoke with teachers at Garlough Elementary, which was dubbed a “Focus” school. .

Photo: File photo by JOEL KOYAMA • jkoyama@startribune.com,

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Garlough Environmental Magnet School had never been considered an academic failure until 2012.

That’s when the Minnesota Department of Education rolled out its new school accountability system, which identified 85 schools it said weren’t doing enough to close the achievement gap between white students and students of color.

“Initially, it stunk,” Garlough Principal Sue Powell said about finding out that her West St. Paul school had been dubbed a “Focus” school.

Today, Powell concedes that the designation was probably a good thing, because it motivated staffers to up their game.

Crucial to those efforts was the Regional Center of Excellence based in Rochester, one of three state teams of specialists who are dispatched into the state’s lowest-performing schools — called “Focus” and “Priority” schools — to help them improve.

The centers, established under the state’s 2012 waiver to the federal No Child Left Behind law, represent a significant shift in the way the state supports struggling schools.

The waiver allowed the state to funnel extra help to schools that really need it. Under the old system, it spread its field resources incredibly thin, because about half of all Minnesota schools were branded as failures. State visits to schools were much less frequent, and many school administrators felt like the focus was on punishing them, not helping.

“It didn’t work,” said Assistant Education Commissioner Steve Dibb. “The system was just too big, and it imploded on itself. It was very inefficient. This system is efficient and purposeful.”

Early reports on the Regional Centers of Excellence are good. One-third of the state’s Focus and Priority schools have made enough progress to be released from the lists, while some have skyrocketed to the top of the state’s ranking system.

“It’s how they helped us,” said Sherri Broderius, superintendent of Atwater-Cosmos Grove City, a former Priority school that now has a stellar state ranking. “It started by them asking, ‘What can we do to help you?’ That doesn’t always happen in education.”

Being in the building

When Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius has good news to share about Minnesota students’ progress, she routinely cites the centers.

Yet few outside education circles understand what they do, though they’ve received millions of dollars in state and federal funding.

That’s partly because most attention has been focused on the state’s new school ranking system. There’s been significantly less attention to what happens to a school once it gets a less-than-desirable ranking.

That’s when the centers enter the picture.

Tapping $3 million in federal funds, the state in 2012 opened three — besides Rochester, there was one each in Thief River Falls and Sartell. In reality, they are virtual; each content specialist — typically reading, math and special education teachers — works out of his or her home. The centers’ directors have offices in the education service cooperatives located across the state.

The state specialists are in Priority schools weekly and Focus schools monthly. They do everything from helping teachers better understand student data to assisting administrators in fine-tuning school improvement plans.

“Really, it starts with building relationships,” said Toni Cox, director of the Thief River Falls center. “And the way you do that is by being in the building on a regular basis.”

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