Fifth-grade teacher Jessica Chalich was searching for answers. Her question: "What is the longest multiplication combination called?"

Most of the students in Chalich's classroom at Global Academy knew the answer — prime factorization — but Zubeyr was the first to answer, his voice barely audible even in a sea of quiet. His classmates gave him a silent thumbs-up to voice their approval, then moved on to an even more challenging set of problems.

Global Academy's 430 students frequently have the right answers. The Columbia Heights K-8 charter school had the highest reading score among the state's highest-poverty schools on Minnesota Comprehensive Assessments scores released last month. And its students posted the third-highest math score.

Since it opened five years ago in a strip mall — its neighbors are Napa Auto Parts and a pizza joint — Global Academy has made strides toward narrowing the achievement gap between white and minority students. It's doing so even though more than 90 percent of its students, most from families recently arrived from Somalia or the Middle East, live in poverty, and more than 60 percent are still learning English.

While those two factors typically have been barriers to academic success, that hasn't been the case at Global, which has a waiting list of 900 students. It's making those gains by instituting a no-nonsense learning culture, offering a college prep curriculum at every grade level, embracing the latest technology and inspiring high parental involvement.

"I always tell people that we have the best 400 kids you could ever hope to teach," said Helen Fisk, the school's director and co-founder. "I would put them up against anyone."

'A fabulous, safe place'

The idea behind Global Academy was born when Fisk and co-founder Melissa Storbakken worked at Twin Cities International Elementary, a Minneapolis charter school that largely serves students of East African heritage. Both career educators had become devotees of the International Baccalaureate program and saw an opportunity to build a school around the curriculum, which challenges students to learn by asking questions.

"If you love to read, if you love to learn, if you like to solve problems, that's what ultimately makes people successful," Fisk said.

"At our school, you'll notice that teachers won't feed students the answers," Storbakken said. "Instead, they'll give them the resources and strategies to find the answers themselves."

When the school moved into the strip mall space once occupied by the Academy of Biosciences Middle School, it quickly found support among members of the Twin Cities' Somali and Middle Eastern communities, many of whom were drawn to the school's no-excuses approach to learning and its respect for diverse cultures. The school observes Muslim holidays, serves halal food and offers Arabic at every grade level.

"It is a fabulous, safe place where they know what every child is doing, and they allow teachers to do what they do best," said Barbara Monzavi, whose daughter, Mitra, is in sixth grade at Global. "That's why they get fantastic results."

A key element shaping the school's environment is a nonverbal behavior management strategy used by teachers and staff. Designed to reduce the time a teacher spends reminding students to do things like "Be quiet," it relies on gestures and maintaining a calm demeanor. Students also obey agreements that govern behavior in the school's hallways, bathrooms and lockers.

"It really cuts down on the 'wa-wa,' said Storbakken, imitating the sound made by the teacher in the Peanuts cartoon. "Classroom time is too valuable to fill it with 'teacher talk.' "

The strategy appears to be paying off. Last year, Global students scored higher than the statewide average for proficiency in reading and math on the MCAs. And despite a drop experienced by all state schools because of the rollout of a tough new reading test this year, long-term trends show steady growth in that subject for Global students.

Consequently, Global Academy has consistently made the Star Tribune's "Beating the Odds" list, which recognizes academic achievement on the MCAs in relation to a school's poverty level.

Fisk "and her team have taken several good ideas and implemented them in a consistent and complementary way," said Joe Nathan, a St. Paul charter school expert and director of the Center for School Change.

'Here to learn'

Eighth-grader Ranya Agami, who thinks she might want to be a mathematician some day, said that while school leaders keep students' focus on learning, Global is not void of fun.

In addition to Lego League and field trips, she describes friendly competition among classes where good behavior is rewarded with points.

"If we win, we'll have a party," she said. "It motivates us to be good. I think we are."

It's an opinion shared by Chalich, a veteran teacher who's been employed by the school since it opened. She says she's constantly impressed by her students and their parents, who turn out en masse for events like spelling bees and science fairs.

"They want to know when their child is not performing well, when their homework isn't done," she said. "Their students are here to learn, and that's our expectation, too.

Commitment to technology

Chalich said she also appreciates Global's commitment to using technology in the classroom. Last year, the school launched a one-to-one iPad program. Some teachers have software that allows them to see responses from students working on their iPads.

"It offers immediate feedback," Chalich said. "It allows us to see who needs more help and who needs more challenging work."

While Storbakken and Fisk say they'd like to have a little more building space, they have no plans to leave Columbia Heights. Nor do they have plans to open a high school, despite pleas from parents.

"We have a number of students who come back and tell us that Global is so much harder than their new high school," Fisk said. "We love hearing that."

Kim McGuire • 612-673-4469