Minnesota's lowest-performing schools are plagued by uneven teaching quality, fuzzy academic goals and minimal parent support, the Minnesota Department of Education says it has found.

On Wednesday the department released reports outlining the shortcomings of the state's lowest-performing 32 schools. By being named to the list this year, they became eligible to apply for $34 million in federal grants designed to help them improve teaching and other problems that keep students from performing up to their potential.

The department hired reviewers to spend two days in each of the 32 schools, looking at problems related to school culture, professional development, teacher evaluations, leadership and other barriers to achieving higher performance.

"We have been struggling for over 30 years with closing the achievement gap," said Alice Seagren, the state education commissioner. The grants will give the state a chance to "really dig deep and try to solve the educational issues in these schools," she said.

Many of the 32 are in the state's poorest communities, where students tend to need more academic and social support, and where many speak English as a second language. Seven are in Minneapolis, two are in St. Paul and 11 are charter schools.

"It's very difficult news for school leadership, for staff, and for parents, to see their schools on a list like this," said Eric Molho, director of strategic planning for the Minneapolis School District. "But that initial pain and anger is already beginning to translate into, 'What are we going to do next, and how can we execute a plan that is really going to make a difference?'"

At Brooklyn Center High School on Wednesday, teachers and administrators agreed with much of the report on their school. What upset them was being called bad.

"All of a sudden, this isn't about school improvement, this is a label," said Principal Bryan Bass. "It doesn't build confidence in the community we serve. ... You can take that label and shove it as far as I'm concerned."

As for the review itself, said Bass, "It's a great report."

Most expected to apply

The grant program is not competitive, and state officials expect most of the listed schools to apply. To get the money, schools must choose from among four federally mandated options for change: They can shut down, turn into charter schools, "turnaround" or "transform" themselves.

Turning a school around means replacing the principal and at least half the teachers, plus implementing a range of strategies to improve performance. Transforming a school means all of those things except replacing half of the staff.

Cambridge Consultants, author of the reports, found that the teachers often failed to teach gifted students and struggling students differently, and sometimes didn't set high enough expectations. They also found that the schools didn't evaluate teachers properly.

Some of the schools lacked leadership, and some school boards micromanaged their schools and classrooms, the consultants found. Changes will be in place by the start of next school year.

Evaluators gave Brooklyn Center High good marks in such areas as student behavior, the learning environment and the curriculum. They gave lower marks in such areas as teaching kids key skills, addressing the needs of families and accepting responsibility for student achievement.

Most of its poor marks dealt with using test data to track student achievement and plan instruction, and not doing enough to match instruction with each student's needs.

School and district administrators say they're working to correct those flaws. Even this week teachers are working to more closely align lessons with students' needs and compare classroom performance notes with fellow teachers.

No surprises

Brooklyn Center Superintendent Keith Lester said the high school fell short of federal testing requirements in several areas for six years. Although suburban, its population is 75 percent students of color and 72 percent low-income. Between 15 and 24 percent are English language learners.

Still, noted Lester, in the past four years, Bass has worked some wonders, raising the percentage of kids who go to college from around 40 percent to 75 percent. Plus, he said, suspensions and disciplinary referrals are only a quarter of what they were four years ago.

In order to get federal money -- about $1 million over three years -- the district has decided on the "transformation model." That means replacing Bass.

"I think that's the dumbest thing I've seen coming out of education in my [40] years in education," Lester said.

He said the district will try to find Bass another position in its administration. But that could interrupt the progress he made in the school.

"We don't want to see him go," said science teacher Scott Rykken. "It would be taking three steps backward."

In St. Paul, Humboldt Senior High and Maxfield Magnet Elementary are on the state's list. The district recently restructured Humboldt as part of the federal No Child Left Behind law, and Maxfield has a new principal who has started to sort out discipline problems, but that's not enough, the report said.

"With both of these schools, we know that there have been problems for a while," said Michelle Walker, the district's chief of accountability, planning and policy. "We've tried to take on making some changes there, so I don't think anything here was really surprising to us. It's not that we have horrible staff at these schools ... it's just a matter of, 'How do you ensure a level of consistency across the board?' "

Emily Johns • 612-673-7460 • ejohns@startribune.com Norman Draper • 612-673-4547 • ndraper@startribune.com