Success, Friendship come up short

  • Article by: COREY MITCHELL , Star Tribune
  • Updated: April 19, 2011 - 5:03 PM

Some school closures are more about high expectations than low enrollment.

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As Minneapolis paves the way for charter schools, stringent standards will follow. Students celebrated the school's holiday "Winter Wonderland" program at Friendship Academy of Fine Arts -- the only current Minneapolis Schools-authorized charter. Fifth grader Elijah Lieng, left, passed out art supplies to classmates in Sarah Pahl's class.

Photo: David Joles, Star Tribune

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Success Academy hasn't lived up to its name, and the folks at Friendship Academy of Fine Arts feel more like foes.

Barring any last-minute reprieves, the two south Minneapolis schools will close this summer, casualties of the Minneapolis School District's tough new stance on accountability.

Though Friendship is a charter school and Success is an alternative school, the message is the same: If students aren't succeeding, their school isn't either.

"We needed to make changes," said Jill Stever-Zeitlin, special adviser to Superintendent Bernadeia Johnson. "We need faster movement for some of our most struggling students."

A fall 2010 report from the Thomas B. Fordham Institute found Minnesota's low-performing schools remained largely untouchable and uncommitted to change.

In Minneapolis, that is no longer the case if Success and Friendship academies are signs of what's to come.

The planned closures have left the school district facing some irate staff and parents and, in the case of Friendship Academy, possible legal action.

"We wish that we could make everybody happy, but there are situations where the needs of the kids have to come first," Stever-Zeitlin said.

ABCs of Friendship

The Minneapolis schools spent $10,000 poking and prodding the ABCs -- academics, budget and challenges -- of Friendship Academy, a 100-student school housed in the back halls and basement of a Baptist church.

"As a preacher, I can say they put us through hell," said the Rev. Billy Russell, a school backer and pastor of Greater Friendship Missionary Baptist Church.

The school made changes, including hiring an academic director, and saw slight gains on standardized tests.

It wasn't enough.

In the end, school board members decided against renewing their contract, rejecting Superintendent Johnson's proposal to give Friendship another year to make improvements.

Friendship's backers saw it as the little school that could, if it just had another chance. But, when it comes to test scores, it was the little school that didn't.

"In my mind, it's extremely simple," board member Hussein Samatar said. "This school has not achieved even close to where we should be."

Charter schools either earn renewal or they don't, wrote the leader of the National Association of Charter School Authorizers in a report commissioned by the school district.

"Every school, no matter how low its performance, will always be able to articulate a plan for future improvement," the association's president and CEO Greg Richmond wrote to Johnson in February.

"Both politically and legally, you will have established a precedent that future potential is more important than past performance."

Success was hard to come by

At Success Academy, the Minneapolis School District partners with Hennepin County to serve about 60 students who have been chronically truant, faced criminal charges or are living in foster homes.

The school has a full-time social worker, community corrections specialist and other aid to help its charges get to class and back to the books.

In spite of the resources, Success Academy's three-year trial run has been a failure: The alternative learning center produced too little improvement and served too few students at too great a cost, the district concluded.

The district wants to work with Hennepin County to design a new model to reach the truant and troubled students.

"The kids need the best possible programming we can offer," said Erin Glynn, the associate superintendent who oversees the school.

The school board will host a hearing on the closing of Success Academy next Tuesday, with the final vote on closure scheduled for early May.

The school's chances of survival are slim; even Superintendent Johnson isn't seeking a reprieve for the Lake Street school.

School officials never questioned the dedication of the staff at either school.

It's just further evidence that performance outweighs all other factors when it comes to evaluating schools.

"It's never a good time" to close a school, Glynn said. But "if we don't, we're not helping the kids."

Corey Mitchell • 612-673-4491

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