An experiment in autonomy

The districtÂ’s new community partnership schools prepare for launch

Ramsey Principal Paul Marietta preparing for the school's August 2012 opening. Less than three years later, Ramsey is among four sites applying for community partnership school status. Credit: File photo

TANGLETOWN — The first Minneapolis Public Schools program to launch with a one-to-one iPad initiative, Ramsey Middle School has been a district innovator since its doors opened in August 2012.

It’s in the vanguard again this spring as one of the first four district programs to apply for community partnership school status. Pending a School Board vote scheduled for April, the schools will be granted some freedom from district rules around staffing, curriculum, budgets and scheduling.

It’s a bargain — autonomy for accountability — and the district expects these laboratories of innovation to deliver on specific student achievement goals. The schools exemplify a shift occurring across the district, which under interim Superintendent Michael Goar is carrying out plans to shrink its central office staff and redistribute financial resources and decision-making power to schools.

Ramsey isn’t quite three years old — its inaugural class of sixth-grade students still has a little over two months of middle school left — but Principal Paul Marietta is wary of stagnation. Marietta said the community partnership school process was a way to “re-engage” his staff and foster another “wave of innovation.”

That includes extending the school day to seven periods, so students have more access to electives. Teachers won’t be in school any longer, but they’ll get a second prep period in their schedules that can be used for collaboration or data review. The school may also develop a new system of teacher observation and evaluation.

Ramsey’s new school status gave it some latitude in staffing, and Marietta used it to develop a unique interview process, one that required prospective hires to go before a panel of students and demonstrate a baseline of technical know-how by submitting a video. Marietta said he’s mostly hired from within the district, but as a community partnership school, Ramsey could continue to recruit teachers from outside the district and would be exempt from forced placement of teachers.

When asked about the freedoms on offer, human resources where Marietta starts.

“The school is only as good as the people who work in it,” he said.

PTA President Charles Spolyar, whose son was in the Ramsey’s inaugural class, said its teachers are “the greatest thing” about a school that never really stopped evolving.

“The extra flexibility will allow the school to keep doing things they’ve been able to do,” Spolyar said. “All three years, nothing has really been the same.” 

Different visions

The district frames autonomy as a potential turbocharger for a school’s academic engine. Academic improvements are accelerated through a combination of flexibility, innovation and a shared sense among a school’s principal, staff and families that they’re responsible for the outcomes produced by a program they designed together.

There are common elements to all four community partnership school applications, including requests for a longer school day and adjustments the district’s schedule of student assessments. But each school has its own vision for next fall.

Bancroft Elementary became a fully authorized International Baccalaureate–Primary Years Programme World School in 2013, and the freedoms school leaders are requesting — including a shift to trimesters and some alterations in the assessment schedule — are designed to allow the school to more faithfully implement the IB curriculum. The goal is similar at Folwell Performing Arts Magnet, where the plan is to better integrate the arts into the rest of the curriculum.

At Nellie Stone Johnson Community School, where one of the goals in requesting autonomy is to slow staff turnover, the plan focuses significantly on adding time for teacher professional development, planning and data review.

The basics of community partnership schools were outlined in the last teachers contract. A memorandum of agreement calls for creation of a Community Partnership School Advisory Committee that will monitor results from the schools and, if necessary, recommend changes to their programs.

The memorandum also made clear that there had to be demonstrated buy-in from staff and community members before a community partnership school application could proceed. Anonymous surveys showed a clear majority staff at all four schools supported the application, ranging from 76 percent at Nellie Stone to 91 percent at Ramsey.

“Sustainability”

Science teacher Kate Holland, a member of Ramsey’s community partnership school design team, said their conversations focused less on change than on “sustainability.” New school status came with its own set of resources and freedoms, “and because of that we built this amazing environment,” Holland said.

As a community partnership school, Ramsey “can keep this going,” she added.

Ramsey social studies teacher Paul Sommers said the school’s staff was excited to tailor a program to their students, a group that will shift significantly next year when middle school students from Green Central Park Community School join the program.

“The more I’m in schools, the more I realize one size does not fit all,” Sommers said.

For Ramsey, the infusion of new students is almost as significant as the shift to a community partnership school. Marietta plans to add 15 positions, creating two full teaching teams, and an adjustment in school demographics means Ramsey will once again receive federal Title 1 funds for serving a high percentage of low-income families.

If Ramsey’s application is approved and teachers get their extra period of collaborative time, Sommers and Holland anticipate much of it will be focused on community-building and professional development around culturally responsive teaching. They’ll also have more time to plan “interdisciplinary” lessons with other teachers, Holland added.

But for these trailblazers, there are still questions about what, exactly, autonomy means for what goes on in the classroom, especially since the district has attempted to align curriculums through its “focused instruction” initiative. Almost 10 percent of district students were considered homeless or highly mobile last year, and at a March School Board meeting Board Member Carla Bates asked how community partnership schools would handle mid-year transfers.

The questions get even bigger if, a year or two down the road, Ramsey and the other community partnership schools deliver on the results they promised.

“If flexibility works for us, why doesn’t that work for other schools?” Sommers asked.