Minneapolis shows that with more autonomy, schools win

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Minneapolis shows that with more autonomy, schools win

Minneapolis Public Schools is running a pilot program to give schools greater autonomy. The program, mirroring trends elsewhere in Los Angeles, Cleveland, Boston, and Denver, designated four locations as Community Partnership Schools (CPS). The schools’ status gives them greater control over four key areas: curriculum and assessment, scheduling, staffing, and budget. 6 more schools have applied to join the program in future years, which could undergo greater expansion pending the results of this year’s annual review.

The four schools involved have already made the most of their autonomy.

Folwell Performing Arts Magnet used its new independence to better advance its arts emphasis. After bringing in experts from the Kennedy Center for a workshop with the faculty on arts integration, Folwell adjusted its schedule to give teachers more time for lesson planning to integrate what they learned. As a result, the school has been able to more consistently bring arts content into every classroom and has strengthened its relationships with the Children’s Theatre Company and the Minnesota Opera. Thanks to its greater independence over evaluation, the school plans to include subjects like dance and instrumental music in its report cards, revise teacher evaluation, and build a community council for future input moving forward. School-level autonomy served Folwell well in non-arts areas too. Thanks to budget and staffing flexibility, Folwell opted to hire new classroom teachers over academic specialists in order to reduce bloated class sizes.

With its increased autonomy, Bancroft Elementary was able to more closely follow International Baccalaureate curriculum. This year for instance, the school switched to trimesters so its courses would better align with IB units. Besides adopting many of Folwell’s scheduling reforms, Bancroft took advantage of fewer curricular constraints in order to align more closely with IB coursework, which was impossible under the district’s model. Bancroft’s report cards now include more qualitative IB measures of student growth such as their “sense of belonging” and “cross-cultural appreciation.” Like Folwell, Bancroft plans to establish a site council of teachers, parents and community members to gain buy-in around future plans.

The STEM and arts-focused Ramsey Middle School used its new freedom to build out a strong teacher leadership platform. The school started an advisory program, where teachers give their fellow staff daily 25 minute lessons on different concepts such as building relationships and doing academic check-ins with students. Ramsey also instituted an informal peer feedback system among teachers that the faculty has found better suited to their professional growth. One of the ways these reforms have carried over to students is through dropping the district’s grading model in favor of a numbered rubric system. Instead of taking on extra credit projects, students are encouraged to reevaluate and improve old work.

Finally, Nellie Stone Johnson Community School embraced its autonomy to work more closely with its local community to provide “wraparound” services to local families. The school deepened its existing ties to the Minneapolis non-profit, Northside Achievement Zone, to connect families to housing, healthcare, and employment resources. Faced with low achievement levels, the school leadership brought in 17 “scholar coaches” to assist in the classroom with reading and math. Nellie Stone Johnson’s teachers also now enjoy more time to develop data-driven lesson plans based on the achievement level of each student. It’s reached the point that teachers at the school are beginning to plan lessons based on individuals, not whole classes.

The Minneapolis program is laying the groundwork to continue expansion. The District’s CPS liaison, Betsy Ohrn, visited Los Angeles with a delegation from the four participating schools and the six applying to the program. They picked up best practices from similarly-independent schools in L.A. who have dramatically increased their achievement since gaining more freedom.

Politically, the CPS program benefitted from the strong support of former Superintendent Bernadeia Johnson. She weathered strong opposition from her union, the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers, to implement the program in the first place. Johnson eventually negotiated protections for the employment contract in place in exchange for union support for school autonomy elsewhere. Interim Superintendent Michael Goar has remained a proponent of the program as well. CPS’ future depends on the support of the next Superintendent the school board nominates. While the board is apparently divided about the program, the benefits of increased autonomy, as shown elsewhere through the expanding charter sector and the proliferation of student-based budgeting, should be clear. By continuing the Community Partnership Schools program Minneapolis stands to create a new pathway to innovation and meaningful community input for a traditional public school sector too often mired in convention.

Tyler Koteskey was an education policy analyst at Reason Foundation, a non-profit think tank advancing free minds and free markets.