Tina Maynor tries to get out a lilting "bonsoir" as she arrives for a meeting of the governing council of Pierre Bottineau French Immersion School, but it comes out more like a croak.

For Maynor, the council meeting is the second shift of her job running the state's first self-governing district school after a day of classes, a job that has kept her voice chronically strained this fall. But that's part of the price of launching a model that's not been tried before by a school district in Minnesota.

"We sweat the pennies and we sweat the students," Maynor said, and sometimes the tradeoffs are difficult.

The self-governed school concept is based on the idea that those closest to a classroom can make the best decisions for students. It mimics many features of charter schools, but within a district framework. The Minneapolis district agreed to the union-backed concept as one of a handful of "new schools" it hopes can make progress on the state's student achievement gap. One recent review found 50 self-governed schools nationally, many of them charters but some within districts.

"Teachers in Minneapolis wanted to have a greater say over the design of schools," said former state Education Commissioner Bob Wedl, a proponent of self-governing schools. "They say, 'We get blamed for schools, but we have no say over how the school is designed and how the money is spent.'"

Now at Bottineau, Maynor and the eight other staffers spend long hours at meetings, deciding what gets bought and what gets taught.

The decisions can be wrenching. At an October meeting of the school's governing council, members wrestled with a hiring opportunity that was attractive but would exceed the school's budget. They wound up hiring two interns from France, which puts the school about $8,000 over budget, something that could be erased by adding a student or two.

The school's enrollment mirrors the surrounding North Side neighborhood, meaning it's both heavily poor and minority. But that matches a long-running French immersion school in Milwaukee, and students there post results equal to or better than Wisconsin's state average test scores in four of five subject areas.

"The research for French immersion is that it is a gap-closer," Maynor said. That was an important goal for the district in approving the school.

For a school that's only in its 13th week, there are still growing pains. Maynor had to go outside the Minneapolis district to find teachers with French expertise and an elementary education license, so she has a young staff. They're still fine-tuning discipline policy.

But having a voice has benefits, according to teacher Wilson Goss. "We're all involved in figuring out what's best for our kids," he said. "It's not someone outside the classroom."

The school opened with 87 students in kindergarten through third grade, less than its target of 120, and that's had fundamental budget consequences. When teaching students how to wash their hands, for example, teachers ask them to use one paper towel instead of two. Still, enrollment has held strong so far despite the area's high student mobility, said Maynor, a North Side resident.

Working out the details

Only the two earliest grades are French immersion for now, but that will change after the second- and third-graders, who started at other schools, head off to middle school. They have a French-enriched curriculum that includes French lessons; an occasional French word appears on spelling tests.

Bottineau is one of only three public French immersion schools in Minnesota; the others are in Edina and St. Paul. The school is named after a French-Ojibwe fur trader and entrepreneur who was one of the prominent early residents of what is now Minneapolis. Although illiterate, he spoke seven languages, according to Maynor.

Life as a pioneering school hasn't been easy. "Since this is such a new thing, it's not always clear what the procedure is for doing something," said board chairwoman Cindy Moeller. "Minneapolis is really a big district and people are used to doing things in a certain way."

Bottineau's opening culminates a push by the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers that dates to a 2005 law authorizing self-governing schools statewide. But in all that time only Bottineau has opened. And even though the Minneapolis school district authorized Bottineau, negotiations with the district over budget and other issues remain vexing.

Frustrated that several other proposals by teachers for self-governed schools have gone nowhere, the teacher's union sidestepped the school district and became a charter school authorizer.

Kim Farris-Berg, who co-authored a book on the trend, said self-governed schools within a district often chafe at district charges and controls imposed despite their supposed autonomy.

For example, Bottineau pays a district overhead charge for special education services, but also must buy extra services if students need help outside the expertise of its part-time special ed specialist. The school and district also have sparred over testing students instructed mainly in French.

"Pierre Bottineau is a chance for the district to get it right," said Farris-Berg. "They've got to avoid expecting the leaders of autonomous schools to work within existing management and work structures that were designed for conventional schooling."

Maynor could have avoided these aggravations by remaining a high school French teacher. But for her the attraction is about keeping decisions close to the classroom -- even with the risks.

"If we don't deliver, Minneapolis Public Schools can say that's the end of it. If I were a taxpayer, I would want all schools to be self-governed."

Steve Brandt • 612-673-4438