A major turnaround at the previously troubled inter-district school may be too little, too late.
Kevin Bennett remembers how he used to cry in his office with his colleagues as they tried to turn around the struggling FAIR integration school in Minneapolis.
Now Bennett, principal of the two FAIR schools, can point to success: 94 percent of the third graders at the downtown school -- the first grade to get full benefit of a revamped emphasis on literacy -- met or exceeded the state's reading proficiency standards last spring.
Another sign is that students attending FAIR's sister middle school in Crystal are coming downtown for high school, a choice most once shunned. Last month, Bennett found out he was selected as the state's middle school principal of the year.
But just as FAIR Downtown -- the acronym stands for Fine Arts Interdisciplinary Resource -- appears to have turned a corner, Minneapolis schools are mulling pulling out of the West Metro Education Program (WMEP), the 11-district voluntary integration program that operates the two schools. That's significant because Minneapolis supplies two of every five students to the FAIR schools.
The potential pullout from the 22-year integration effort puzzles Bennett, who invites Minneapolis officials to look over the schools. He brings a message of personal accountability to his staff. "If kids fail, it's on us," he said, a philosophy that colleagues say sometimes leads to uncomfortable conversations in staff meetings.
Bennett had just three years of teaching under his belt in a Chicago public high school and was still in his 20s when he was hired by FAIR in 2004, rising from assistant principal to principal within a year. He was fresh from earning a masters degree in Chicago, and needed a state licensing waiver to serve initially as principal. Now 36, he supervises two schools -- shuttling between Crystal and 10 S. 10th St.
Although Bennett acknowledged that staff at each school might feel shorted by his dual gigs as principal, parent Laura Aulik of Edina said she's amazed at how ubiquitous he seems at school events. "Mr. Bennett definitely does have a fire in him that I have not seen in principals," she said. "His presence is always there."
There's also been a transformation in Bennett since his earlier years at FAIR. Although he's still gray-suited some days, on others he can be found with plaid shirttails hanging out, often surrounded by laughing, excited students.
"I'm not the principal who looks at data all day," Bennett said. "I look at students all day. Those test scores should tell me things I already know."
Yet school leaders in Minneapolis are still concerned about whether spending increasingly scarce dollars on integration efforts like the FAIR schools is paying off in student achievement, according to city school board chairman Alberto Monserrate. Last month, the school board voted to give a formal notice of withdrawal from WMEP to keep its options open for the 2013-2014 school year. Its review is expected to finish in time for parents to make school choices before then.
Aulik calls the school board's action "a real slap in the face for FAIR." But district officials say they want to see data on whether Minneapolis students in FAIR schools are performing significantly better than their peers in other city schools. They promise that the review will offer plenty of opportunities for the families and students attending the two FAIR schools.
The city's issues with FAIR have two origins: the troubles of the original downtown school, and the lack of integration.
The downtown school struggled with a shaky opening year in 1998, frequent turnover of principals, and its kindergarten through 12th grade configuration.
Bennett changed that. He and WMEP Superintendent Dan Jett pared downtown's 13 grades to a K-3 and senior high grades combo that wrapped around the Crystal school's popular 4-8 grade span, and adopted the latter's arts-infused curriculum.
That paid off with more than 1,600 enrollment applications for about 150 openings at the two schools for this academic year. Almost all who finish third grade downtown go on to the Crystal school. But the biggest change is that more than half of the Crystal's eighth grade graduates are entering FAIR downtown's ninth grade, rather than suburban high schools, compared to just a handful before. Ninth grade enrollment has quadrupled in two years.
"Three years ago, they wouldn't have considered coming here," Bennett said. "They said we couldn't get white kids to come downtown."
Another issue for Minneapolis educators has been that five years ago, the two schools didn't seem to fulfill their integration goal: bringing more white kids to Minneapolis and more minority students to the suburbs.
Most of the Minneapolis students headed to the Crystal school were white, and most of the suburban students arriving downtown were minorities. Since then, the minority share of students in Crystal has risen from 32 percent to 44 percent, while the white population downtown has grown from 30 percent to 36 percent.
Meanwhile, the revamped downtown school's focus shifted more toward literacy and the arts. The test score increases show a payoff from the two hours that kindergartners through third graders spend each day on literacy. They also reflect increased expectations for volunteers, such as 250 Target workers who now are trained to interact with students about what they read, rather than merely reading or listening. High school students can also work with arts organizations ranging from the Minneapolis College of Art and Design to Stages Theatre Company.
All this change under Bennett almost didn't happen. After several years at FAIR Crystal, he was set to take a better-paying job from the private Blake School several years ago when a phone call from Aulik pulled him back to reality. Aulik urged him to think harder about where a principal with his track record could have the most impact.
"He did not take the easy way out," Aulik said. "He took the right way out."
Steve Brandt • 612-673-4438