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Charter school to share Minneapolis public school space

  • Article by: PATRICE RELERFORD
  • Star Tribune
  • December 2, 2008 - 10:40 PM

Minneapolis public school district plans to allow Dunwoody Academy, an independent vocational charter school, to move to North Community High School next fall, district officials announced Tuesday.

The move comes as the Minneapolis district adopts reforms at many of its schools to win back families from charter and suburban schools. It is the first time a metro-area district and a charter school have shared a building.

Dunwoody Academy and North High will continue to operate independently, but some programs, including athletics and special education, may be shared to cut costs. Dunwoody is outgrowing its current location. Meanwhile, North High's enrollment has decreased by more than half since 2003.

Minneapolis is working to transform North High into a small specialty school with a science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) focus.

"People will be watching this and we want to be sure we're doing what's right for students and continue to engage the school community as we go along," Deputy Superintendent Bernadeia Johnson said.

Eugene Piccolo, executive director of the Minnesota Association of Charter Schools, said the partnership is unprecedented in the metro area but several outstate districts share space with charter schools.

Minneapolis teachers union president Lynn Nordgren said it's still early in the process but that district leaders discussed the plan with North High teachers Monday. They were told they would help plan the transition. Charter school teachers typically aren't unionized.

District officials said discussions of the plan began earlier this year. Other details, including potential program changes, will be worked out later, officials from both schools said. They expect to negotiate the lease in January.

"We want to go in there with the mindset that we're not just leasing space," said Benito Matias, executive director of Dunwoody Academy. "It's about the students and pooling resources between both organization to provide the best possible resources for them."

Dunwoody Academy opened its doors in 2007 on the campus of Harvest Prep/Seed Academy charter school on Olson Memorial Highway.

It is sponsored by Dunwoody College of Technology and boasts a 210-day schedule, 35 days longer that most schools, which is intended to give students a strong academic base as they specialize in health care, auto, construction, media arts and manufacturing programs.

It serves about 200 students from Minneapolis and St. Paul and several inner-ring suburbs.

North High parent Blenda Smith serves as the treasurer of the school's parents group and said the partnership sounds like a promising idea as North's enrollment fluctuates and it works to strengthen its programs. Her son is a freshman at the 550-student school.

"I really believe in the community school and what they're doing [at North]," Smith said. "It's like planting the seed all over again, she [Principal Ellen Stewart] works really hard to build the school up."

Ellen Stewart graduated from North High in 1985 and became principal two years ago. She said during the 1980s the school had more than twice as many students, because it had strong signature programs, including a technical and media arts curriculum. North High is designed to handle between 1,800 and 2,000 students so there is ample space for both programs, Stewart said. The school has lost more than 650 students since 2003.

In recent years North High's enrollment -- Minneapolis' six other high schools all have more than 1,000 students -- and low state test scores led to concerns that the district would close the school. On Tuesday, Stewart said she hopes the partnership will help put those fears to rest.

She added: "Now that the district has committed to North as a smaller school, we can focus [all of our attention] on being an academic powerhouse."

Patrice Relerford • 612-673-4395

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