I was ecstatic to hear last week about the success of Hiawatha Leadership Academy, a Minneapolis charter school serving an almost entirely low-income and minority student body. The Minnesota Department of Education’s new school accountability system named Hiawatha one of the state’s most successful schools. According to MinnPost writer Beth Hawkins, the new rating system takes into account many measures of school quality, including student proficiency and growth, progress toward closing the achievement gap and graduation rates. In contrast to previous school rankings, these indicators provide a clearer picture of the progress happening at schools, especially those with disadvantaged students. (In my May 18 blog post I addressed some of my concerns and ideas related to school rating systems.)
One of the most promising aspects of the new rating system is that the Minnesota Department of Education will ask the top 15 percent of high-performing Title I schools, called “Reward” schools, to share their best practices. I had the opportunity to visit Hiawatha earlier this year. As a young teacher, the school’s culture and dynamic practices captivated my attention, such as its data-driven instruction and college-focused classrooms. (I even had the chance to see a kindergarten class chant Northwestern University’s – my alma mater – fight song!)
Keeping Hiawatha’s success in mind, I was both excited and frustrated to hear that its organizers, as well as the organizers of a few other Reward schools, plan to open several new schools in the next decade. Increasing the number of high-performing schools is never a bad thing, but why do we have to wait for brand new schools to do this? Let’s use the knowledge we’re gaining from high-performing schools to improve the district and charter public schools that already exist. The department’s intention to share Reward schools’ best practices is a great start.
One of the first pieces of advice ingrained in my mind during teacher training: Always, always, always “beg, borrow or steal.” My instructors said that as new teachers, we should never feel the burden to constantly reinvent the wheel when planning our lessons. Instead, we should leverage the wealth of resources available from teaching veterans, especially those who are highly effective educators. Minnesota students don’t have time to wait around for us freshly minted teachers to figure everything out on our own.
Similarly, Minnesota students shouldn’t have to wait for their schools to figure everything out on their own, either. We’ve identified local schools that are “getting things right” with the same student populations that many of us serve and are all too often failed by the system. This in it of itself is a tremendous accomplishment, but starting now we should beg, borrow and steal their school-wide strategies so all students can reap the benefits. Analyzing their success needs to be a top priority for education officials and school administrators so that we can replicate great schools as soon as possible. It’s great that new schools with great potential will be opened in the future, but let’s make sure that all students are seeing benefits in the present, too.
Christina Salter is a MinnCAN School Reform Blogging Fellow.