On the fast track to autonomy

Southwest and FAIR jump the queue to become community partnership schools

Parent Caroline Cochran, left, and staff member Holli Hoffman serve on the Southwest High School community partnership school design team. Photo by Dylan Thomas

Southwest High School and FAIR School Downtown are ready to go all-in on the Minneapolis Public Schools’ offer of autonomy for accountability.

Their applications to become the district’s fifth and sixth community partnership schools — gaining greater control over budgets, schedules, hiring and curricula as long as they can show results in the form of improved student outcomes — go before the Board of Education in April. Four other schools applied to become part of the second community partnership school cohort, but the district put Southwest and FAIR on a fast track.

Community partnership schools are one of the more dramatic examples of a shift driven by the district’s strategic plan, Acceleration 2020. Instead of being centralized at district headquarters, decision-making power and the responsibility for student success are increasingly migrating to schools.

At the core of the community partnership school concept is the idea, supported by research in other districts, that students do better when their teachers feel empowered. The shift to autonomy requires teachers to take an active role in designing the school, creating a shared sense of ownership that is another key ingredient in improving student outcomes.

Whether Minneapolis can recreate that magic formula is yet to be seen. The first cohort of community partnership schools are only part-way through their first year of autonomy, and in March they were starting a first run through an annual review process led by the district.

“We know it will take time to see the outcomes,” said Betsy Ohrn, director of the district’s Office of New Schools, during a March 8 presentation to the school board.

“Not every district is equally successful with this type of model, and not every school is equally successful with this type of model,” Ohrn said, adding that autonomous school projects in Chicago, Oakland and the U.K. took two to three years to produce results.

Remodeling inside and out

Ringed with construction fences, Southwest High School is in the midst of a $35-million remodeling project that will add 20 classrooms and a soaring new entrance. Less visible, but potentially even more transformative, is the ongoing design of the school’s community partnership school plan.

Holli Hoffman, an International Baccalaureate Programme coordinator at Southwest, said much of the planning for autonomy so far has focused on time, in terms of both the school year calendar and class schedules. There’s talk of adding a special May term, since that’s the time of year when International Baccalaureate and Advanced Placement testing is already disrupting student schedules.

The school will still be under construction until August, so that limits Southwest’s options for making a more significant change to the calendar next year, like an early start. But, if approved as a community partnership school, Southwest may begin experimenting with more flexible class scheduling next fall.

“(Principal Bill) Smith has talked about having a school that’s open 7 to 7 for years,” Hoffman said.

Many Southwest students already earn college credit through AP and IB courses, and if granted autonomy the school plans to make it a goal that every student leaves with 12 college credits. They plan to expand post-secondary enrollment options and partner with local colleges to offer more dual-credit courses, Hoffman said.

When they presented the plan to the school board March 8, Board Member Carla Bates, a consistent advocate for high school redesign, was enthusiastic.

“I feel like you leapfrogged over the district,” Bates said.

But that the specifics of the plan could change. Autonomous schools, by nature, are ongoing and evolving experiments.

Lessons from L.A.

Caroline Cochran, a Southwest parent and member of the community partnership school design team, traveled to Los Angeles recently where she visited three autonomous schools, including Francis Polytechnic Senior High, a large public high school with about 3,000 students that she said looked a lot like Southwest.

“What we learned in L.A. is it’s always a work in progress,” Cochran said. “You’re trying things and sometimes they work and sometimes they don’t.”

She said it took Francis Polytechnic several years to boost staff buy-in — so critical to autonomous school success — to its current level of 94 percent. At Southwest, teacher support for the community partnership school plan was just 74 percent in a recent survey. The district requires a minimum of two-thirds teacher support to move forward.

Cochran said she was initially apprehensive about moving away from the traditional public school model, and in L.A. she heard from administrators, students and staff that the process can be difficult. But she also saw evidence of strengthened relationships, particularly between students and teachers.

“I definitely came away from that thinking this is good for schools,” Cochran said. “It’s good to empower the teachers and the staff, because they understand their (student) populations best.”

FAIR school administrators declined an interview request, but their community partnership school application makes clear they view autonomy as a way to preserve a school model that is in many ways unique in the district. Formerly one half of a dual-campus school in the West Metro Education Program, a multi-city integration district, FAIR Downtown was conveyed to Minneapolis Public Schools last year, and its sister campus in Crystal joined Robbinsdale Public Schools.

FAIR’s application indicates school leaders aim to enhance the integration model with a new social justice curriculum and additional programming for its black male students. If it’s granted freedom from district rules, FAIR will continue to pursue the partnerships it’s formed with downtown arts and post-secondary institutions.

A survey of FAIR staff put support for the shift at 97 percent.

Year one

Part of the autonomy-for-accountability deal requires community partnership schools to enter into performance agreements with the district. During the annual review, the schools will be assessed against both their own individual goals and the “5-8-10” performance targets set by the district’s strategic plan: a 5-percent annual increase in students meeting or exceeding state math and reading standards; a faster 8-percent increase in those areas for low-performing students; and a 10-percent annual increase in the graduation rate.

But those data aren’t available until after students take state standardized tests in the spring. In the meantime, the district is tracking other indicators, like teacher satisfaction, through surveys.

Ohrn said, when and where they work, autonomous schools have clear goals, a focus on teaching and learning and supportive central offices that are committed to the experiment. At successful autonomous schools, teacher surveys reflect high levels of empowerment and satisfaction, she said.

Principal Amy Janecek of Ramsey Middle School, one of four schools granted community partnership school status in 2015, described autonomy as a way for that school to foster and sustain a spirit of collaboration. Janecek uses budget freedoms to put money into a peer-to-peer teacher observation model that’s different from the system of teacher observations and evaluations used in the rest of the district.

“We try to spread that learning throughout all our teachers, because we know getting into classrooms helps teachers learn from one another and helps them grow as a professional,” Janecek said.

Before arriving at Ramsey this summer, Janecek was an associate principal at Wayzata High School, a school that follows a much more traditional top-down approach. Asked if it was difficult to take on the responsibility of autonomy, she said the bigger difference is that true collaboration just takes time.

“I would say that I walk into meetings and I might have an outcome in my mind, and having the amazing thinking and ideas through collaboration, we have a very, very different outcome,” Janecek said. “ … I do own the outcomes, but I also appreciate tapping into the incredible thinking and the innovative thinking of our staff.”