By Joe Nathan
Minnesota educators, students, parents and policy-makers received another honor last week: the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools ranked our state’s charter law as number one in the country. Thanks to a strong law, suburban and rural, as well as urban Minnesota families have high quality options, including district and charter schools.
Most Minnesota families continue using district public schools. But research by our center found that over the last decade, the number of Minnesota students enrolled in charters increased by almost 30,000, while the number of students attending district schools declined by more than 40,000 students.
Whether their preference is a Montessori elementary, or junior-senior high, a classical academy that teaches Latin, an arts-focused high school, a project based school promoting “hands-on” learning, Chinese immersion, or an online school, Minnesota’s charter law has helped create new options for families throughout the state.
Gov. Mark Dayton and Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius have wisely recommended that districts and charters spend more time learning from each other, and less time debating which is better, district or charter public schools. Both kinds of public schools vary widely.
Here are examples of what Minnesota’s charter law has helped produce:
Sabrina Williams, who founded and directs Excell Academy in Brooklyn Park Excell, uses the research based “Core Knowledge” curriculum and direct instruction. She wrote, “Throughout my 13 years of being involved with Minnesota charter schools, it is no surprise to me that Minnesota’s charter laws have soared to the top. The Minnesota charter movement is, and always has been, a collaborative effort. Charter school directors, charter school support organizations, and other charter school advocates have always been able to set aside personal opinion and work together to address charter challenges and to strengthen the laws in order to provide the best education, resources, facilities, and future for Minnesota charter school students.”
Minnesota New Country in Henderson offers a “project-based” hands-on approach that attracts seventh through 12th graders from more than 30 miles.
Ridgeway in southeastern Minnesota offers elementary families with elementary students the opportunity to keep students with the same teacher for two years.
Eagle Ridge Academy, a K-12 charter in Eden Prairie, isn’t necessarily “better” or “worse” than the district schools. It provides a “classical” education for families, as well as a single building to which families can send all their children, if they choose to do so.
The Main Street School of Performing Arts in Hopkins offers a smaller, more arts-focused option to larger suburban high schools. Some students and families prefer the larger high school, some prefer a small, more focused school.
Partnership Academy in Richfield works with mostly Spanish-speaking students and families, once again, in a smaller setting than area public schools.
Trio/Wolf Creek, Edvisions Off Campus, and Minnesota Virtual High School provide online learning programs for families throughout the state.
Northern Lake Academy and Lakes International Charters in Forest Lake are different from Forest Lake Public Schools. The district also just has received an award from the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey School for its collaboration with charters.
Minnesota is learning that district and charter public schools, like colleges and universities, can simultaneously compete and cooperate. It’s not one or the other. It can be both. Our center runs several programs in which district and charter leaders and teachers are learning with and from each other.
While pleased that Minnesota’s ranked number one, Al Fan, director of the Minnesota based Charter School Partners, commented, “We must do a better job of utilizing the charter model to create great schools for all Minnesota kids.”
Eugene Piccolo, executive director of the Minnesota Association of Charter Schools, said: “Our law is a dynamic document that we work to refine as the charter school movement evolves, and strives to achieve the purposes and goals of public charter schools.” His organization provides a list and map, plus other information about charters at mncharterschools.org.
Joe Nathan, formerly a Minnesota public school teacher, administrator and PTA president, directs the Center for School Change. Reactions welcome, firstname.lastname@example.org