Our City, Our Schools forum gets people talking about Mpls schools
by Alleen Brown, TC Daily Planet
by Alleen Brown, TC Daily Planet
Mon January 30, 2012
Last week, two principals from schools that are beating the odds by coaxing higher-than-average test scores out of their low-income and non-white students spoke at AchieveMpls’s Our City, Our Schools event, a new monthly forum meant to engage community members in conversations around public schools.
The forum is part civics lesson, part recruitment campaign. AchieveMpls invites community members from a range of backgrounds to listen to a presentation and discuss. The idea is to give attendees information and practice that will help them speak knowledgeably about public education. “We’re not very good at having discussions about real issues anymore,” said facilitator Rebecca Noecker.
Additionally, participants are encouraged to leave with at least one step they can take to get more involved in the school system.
AchieveMpls is Minneapolis Public Schools’ nonprofit partner. It isn’t run by the district, but the partnership is sort of the organization’s purpose. It connects MPS to businesses, nonprofits, foundations and individuals who can raise money, volunteer, or benefit the schools in other ways. For example, Achieve participates in the City of Minneapolis Step-Up program, connecting youth with paid summer internships at organizations like Target, Cargill and HealthPartners.
On Thursday, Seed-Harvest charter school principal Eric Mahmoud and Ryan Gibbs, principal at Loring community school, spent about 10 minutes a piece talking about the strategies they used to produce higher-than-average test scores in their North Minneapolis schools. The rest of the time was left for small-group discussion. The speakers floated among groups to answer questions and participate in the conversations.
Loring elementary’s mostly non-white students scored higher than the rest of Minneapolis on state math and reading tests. According to Gibbs, the school’s success is a result of a sharp focus on achievement and data. The school uses a Response to Intervention model that sorts kids into “red,” “yellow,” and “green” zones, which each require specific levels of monitoring and check-ins. He said as part of the school’s focus on health and wellness he implemented a “jamming minute” initiative, where once every couple hours, kids and teachers stop what they’re doing and move their bodies. “It’s hilarious. The teachers are even getting a good workout,” he said.
Mahmoud said he sees five gaps between his mainly black and low-income students and their richer, whiter counterparts – a preparation gap, time gap (students who aren’t prepared for kindergarten need more time to catch up), belief gap, teaching gap and leadership gap. He said the belief gap is the most significant. Mahmoud’s schools are divided into five programs including African American focused pre-kindergarten and K-6 programs, an East African focused K-8 program and two science and technology focused girls-only and boys-only programs. The students are African or African American, and they scored higher than the Minnesota average on state tests, doing particularly well in math.
In one small group, two art school employees, a veteran principal, a Job Corps employee, and two Americorps reading coaches marveled at how student success varies so significantly from school to school. Mahmoud told them it’s all about execution and following up on plans and outlines. “You can find people that are passionate, but you still have to execute [your plans],” he said.
He compared the “belief gap” he sees in 60 percent of his students to a cap on a cup. If you try to pour water into the cup, the water will spill. “You can’t get knowledge in, because they have a belief cap,” he said.
Mahmoud said months ago, the school presented medallions to students who did well on the state MCAs. “This was in October. Do you know they’re still wearing those medallions around the school?” he said. “It was powerful.”
The group also asked Mahmoud about parent engagement. Surprisingly, he said that parent involvement isn’t particularly high at Seed-Harvest. “I can’t control parents,” he said. “What I can control is the curriculum. I can control the quality of teachers. I can control the professional development. I can control the time.”
“There’s really no secrets,” he said. “It’s not like I invented anything.”
Most of the attendees were business professionals, non-profit employees or educators, many of whom were already engaged in education discussions before the event. Missing were the average Joes and gas station attendants whom Noecker encouraged the audience to invite. She said Achieve hopes to attract more participants by holding the event in a different part of the city and time of the day each month.
February’s topic will be school integration, but the date has not been set. Watch AchieveMpls’s web site for updates.