District to open first new success school

THE WEDGE — A Minneapolis school building on Lake Street was to sit empty this school year, but instead will house the district’s first new “success school.”

Designed to serve mainly students with a history of chronic attendance issues, the program is the first of several proposed success schools, each with a focus on students with particular educational needs. Known as SUCCESS Academy, it will be housed in the Lehmann Center, 1006 W. Lake St., the former home of several alternative high school programs that were closed or relocated at the end of last school year.

“This particular initiative is really part of the overall high school redesign,” Brenda Cassellius, assistant superintendent for secondary schools, said, referencing a broader district plan to reshape high schools and raise student performance.

Additional success schools may be introduced in coming years as the district takes greater control of programs now operated mainly by contract alternatives, community-based agencies on contract with the school district. Some have a poor track record of student academic performance and graduation rates, and all will face greater district scrutiny in coming years, Cassellius said.

Sally Reynolds, a licensed social worker and former charter school principal, will lead the new success school.

Minneapolis Public Schools (MPS) administrators did not plan to introduce the first success school this fall, but district officials leapt on an unexpected opportunity to partner with Hennepin County.

In June, the county ended its contract with Katahdin, a contract alternative that served juvenile offenders and chronic truants. A recent county evaluation of the program found per-student spending hovered around $7,000 while graduation rates were stuck at less than 20 percent, LuAnn Schmaus, a county spokesperson, said.

Schmaus said the county, looking to improve efficiency in a time of tight budgets, turned to MPS.

During the transition, the county extended its contract with another partner, Keystone, to continue work with juvenile offenders. Meanwhile, MPS sped up the introduction of its first success school to fill the void in programming for students with attendance issues.

In August, the Hennepin County Board passed a resolution providing up to $62,000 for SUCCESS Academy in its first year, an amount that will fund an on-site social worker and community corrections specialist, as well as a part-time clerical position and some student transportation costs. The resolution also approved up to $42,500 for behavioral health supports through a contract with Volunteers of America of Minnesota.

MPS will provide staff, student meals and most other resources for SUCCESS Academy in its first year. It will also provide space for the school in the basement of the Lehman Center — a building district administrators previously discussed selling — at least for now.

Mary Barrie, MPS executive director of alternative programs, said the district-county partnership should provide the resources needed to speed SUCCESS Academy students to graduation or the earning of a General Educational Development (GED) certificate.

“What we found in our alternative schools is we had kids who really needed something extra,” Barrie said.

She anticipated about 80 students would attend SUCCESS Academy in its first year. Students will be in grades 7–12, and all will have had some previous contact with the county, through a social worker or probation officer, for example.

At an open house in late August, Barrie showed off the new flat-screen computers in the school’s media lab. The district plans to use updated technology and web-based learning to get SUCCESS Academy students who are far behind on credits back on track for graduation, she said.

Barrie said the district’s plan to introduce more success schools did not mean, necessarily, that it would end partnerships with more of its contract alternative schools. She noted that the district even added a contract alternative for the 2008-2009 school year.

Still, she reinforced Cassellius’s point that the district would monitor more closely the educational outcomes of the contract alternatives, ending relationships with faltering schools and strengthening partnerships with those contract alternatives with a strong track record.

District administrators also were discussing other success school models, including a school for students struggling with chemical dependency.

“I would love to have a sober school,” Barrie said.

For now, the district’s focus is on making its first success school a real success.