If you asked James Barnett to write one of those proverbial high school essays on how he spent his summer vacation, he might say he spent it writing a giant want ad. It would read something like this:

WANTED: High school age students who are determined to go to college. Must agree to study hard, follow a strict code of ethics and behavior and adhere to a zero-violence policy. Race, social status and family income are not important.

Barnett, principal of Minneapolis College Preparatory School, has been busy scouring summer church programs, social service agencies and even homeless shelters to sell his much lauded north Minneapolis charter school to wary students and parents.

His mission is to grow his two-year-old school from 80 to at least 120 students, and in doing so persuade those kids that they don't have to bus to the suburbs or go to a private school to be college-ready.

If you look at what the school has done so far, it might seem like an easy pitch. In its first year, 2012, the school took in kids who were up to five grades behind schedule. By the end of the year, 90 percent had caught up.

The freshmen who started MCP two years ago were on average testing a point below minimum score on college entrance and prep tests. Since then, on average, they are testing a point above.

Despite the early success, starting a new charter school can be daunting.

"Kids want to see a brand, they want to see a school culture," said Barnett, who leases space at 2131 12th Av. N. "We have a gorgeous building, it's just not ours."

The school's mantra is "scholarship, discipline and honor." But part of a school's "brand" are also the intangibles and extracurricular activities, such as sports teams, music and the arts. That's evolving as the student body builds critical mass.

"We've got a good start to our music project and established an arts program," said Barnett. "Next year we are going to offer basketball, soccer and track and field."

So far, Barnett has 125 applicants. But because some kids may move or decide on another school, he's shooting for 200. He eventually envisions a student body of 500.

But since they haven't had a graduating class yet, MCP can't boast about how many have gone on to college, something that's expected of every student.

Barnett, who was born in Chicago and moved to north Minneapolis in grade school, learned how important it is to be surrounded by kids who expect to go to college. A mentor saw Barnett's potential, and got him into Minnehaha Academy.

"I felt privileged and very lucky to go to that school," said Barnett. But he was only one of two kids from the North Side at the school at the time. While his grades were fine, he didn't stand out academically because everybody was expected to be great.

"I felt I had to give up some social capital to go to Minnehaha," Barnett said. "Fortunately I was pretty good at football. That allowed me to be more relevant there. But I know we can build that kind of school in my community."

"I was a very average student in that environment," said Barnett. "But I got a strong outcome because of that environment. Every school has a tilt to it. At some schools the tilt is uphill, you are always falling backward. At Minnehaha, the tilt was in the other direction so even when you were standing still you were moving forward."

Barnett's goal is to bring that same atmosphere to his school — for free.

After college, Barnett was accepted into Teach for America at a time when it was about as difficult to achieve as acceptance into Harvard. "I said, how did I pull this off?"

Many parents have the perception suburban schools are better. Barnett points out that while their overall success rate may be good, many do poorly with minority students.

"In speaking with parents, I try to paint a picture of a true college prep school," said Barnett. "I tell them we have teachers committed to getting your kid ready for college. I tell them we have zero tolerance for violence — we didn't have one fight last year. I tell them they can walk into my office anytime with concerns or ideas, because I understand. I've been there."

Because he experienced both public schools and private high school, Barnett understands how important peer and family support is, as well as a culture of high expectations.

"When I think there are factors that derail a kid; they are getting a job at Wendy's instead of doing their homework because they see the temporary reward. I talk to them about how in four years of college you are eventually going to double or triple your income."

So, Barnett will spend the rest of the summer hitting events and talking to kids and their parents, trying to persuade them that his school can help them change the tilt.

jtevlin@startribune.com 612-673-1702

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