Eric Mahmoud has proven he can produce high test scores with low-income black elementary students on the North Side. He's done it at a private school. He's done it at charter schools.

Now in his most ambitious undertaking to date, the founder of Harvest Prep is seeking the chance to clone his success under a performance-based contract with Minneapolis Public Schools.

The school board is expected to vote Tuesday on granting Mahmoud the chance to open four charter schools in the next 10 years. They'll be part of the district's expanding portfolio of quasi-independent schools and will represent a sea change in its relations with non-district schools.

Those new schools include homegrown charters such as Mahmoud's, imports from successful charter models in other big cities and even the state's first self-governed school, which plans to open this fall. It's part of a trend in big-city districts to embrace different management models for schools.

Superintendent Bernadeia Johnson said the district's 2008 strategic plan, adopted under a school board that was "more progressive" than its predecessor, focused on better results for all children, whether served by the district or charters.

What these new schools will have in common is greater autonomy from the district in exchange for accountability. If the experiment works, both sides will share educational know-how, something that's already happening among public, charter and private schools in or near the Northside Achievement Zone -- an unprecedented effort to support families and children in part of north Minneapolis.

Mahmoud already has shown he can clone success. Harvest Prep -- a private school that became a charter -- came first, with about 400 students in kindergarten through grade six. He followed that with the 500-student K-8 Best Academy, which is three schools in one - with two gender-separated schools and one oriented toward East African students. Harvest and Best students spend 35 percent more time in class, with longer days and only a six-week summer break.

The first school under his proposed arrangement with the district would be called Mastery School, which Mahmoud hopes to open in August with 180 K-2 students on the way to an eventual 500 gender-separated students in K-8. He's looking for a site.

"I just want to be able to demonstrate that it's not a one-off or two-off relationship with Harvest or Best," he said. "I'm 100 percent confident it can be done. Target does it all over the country. Best Buy does it all over the country. There's no reason we can't do it in Minneapolis."

He's seen the district attitude change from the days when it refused to rent empty schools to charter schools, something that changed in 2008.

"Minneapolis has a different mindset around charter schools. Minneapolis was viewing charter schools as competition. I'm not going to be in a relationship where the authorizer feels we're in competition," he said. But with a new board, superintendent and Office of New Schools, "They've made it clear we don't care if it's a charter school or a district school--we want the best for our children in Minneapolis."

That's what Johnson was looking for in two outside charter networks that are importing their models to Minneapolis. Minnesota School of Science opened last fall in the Cityview school building under the management of Concept Schools, a 27-school, Illinois-based charter manager. Minneapolis College Prep, to be operated by the 10-school Noble Network of Chicago, is scheduled to open this fall in the Lincoln school.

But the biggest departure from the district norm will be Pierre Bottineau French Immersion School. It's the first school to open under the state's self-governed schools law, which dates to 2005.

The district challenged teachers who proposed the school to prove that language immersion would serve a low-income, primarily black student body. Results from a longstanding public French immersion school in Milwaukee demonstrated that such students performed as well as the Wisconsin average.

The school will be run by a council of community, parent and teacher representatives, and they'll contract for such services as busing or food. "Keeping decisions close to teaching and learning makes decisions better," said Tina Maynor, a district teacher who now has the job of school leader. Like Mahmoud's schools, Maynor's school will have three years to meet district marks for student proficiency and growth on tests and to show it can close the racial achievement gap.

"If we don't deliver, Minneapolis Public Schools can say that's the end of it," Maynor said. "If I were a taxpayer, I would want all schools to be self-governed to make sure people in the building are taking things seriously."

Steve Brandt • 612 673-4438

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