Photo: #Minnesota Education Commissioner Alice Seagren, left, speaks to reporters about the federal School Improvement Grant program, on Wednesday May 26, 2010. At right is Pat King, director of the School Improvement division of the Minnesota Department of Education.

Consultants find common faults in 32 Minn. schools

by Tom Weber, Minnesota Public Radio
May 26, 2010

St. Paul, Minn. — Maxfield Elementary in St. Paul has had eight principals in 10 years and so many fights and bullying, students essentially controlled the school day before a new principal took over this year.

At a charter school in north Minneapolis, students were given worksheets that did little more than keep them busy.

And teachers at an elementary school in Red Lake are overwhelmed with student data that isn't broken down for them in a way that would let them see where students are struggling and need help.

Those are some of the findings released today amidst a set of 32 evaluations for the schools that have been identified as Minnesota's worst-performing. Those schools now must shape a robust plan of action to turn that school around. In return, they'll be eligible to share $34 million from the federal stimulus.

"This is going to be an extraordinary opportunity," said Minnesota Education Commissioner Alice Seagren, speaking to reporters this afternoon.

Seagren acknowledged that some communities were shocked earlier this year to learn their school was among the state's worst-performing. But she says they should also see this process as a positive step that will improve student achievement and serve as a model for other schools to follow.

"If we treat this is a negative and we are more worried about the adults' feelings and not concerned and focused on the needs of our children in these schools, then we are not focused in the right way," she said.

Seagren said while each school had its own unique evaluation, some common themes emerged. They include schools that weren't using data well enough to improve instruction, a lack of parent and community engagement in the school, poor leadership at the principal, superintendent, or school board level, and inadequate teacher evaluations.

The schools now have to follow one of four models in forming their turnaround plans. They can close or turn themselves into a charter school, or they can follow the models that include firing the school principal and, in some cases, several teachers. The plans also might include measures like a longer school day or re-tooled plans for teacher professional development.

Reaction in the affected districts to today's evaluations was mixed.

Erik Molho is coordinating turnaround plans for the Minneapolis Public Schools, which has seven of the 32 schools on the list. He says today's evaluations didn't reveal any surprises, just more information that will help finalize those turnaround plans.

"As difficult as it is for a lot of these schools to recognize that they're on this list of chronically under-achieving schools, we're beginning to view this grant as an opportunity to invest in these schools and do the really tough work of turning them around," he said.

But in the rural southern Minnesota town of Butterfield, where community leaders say they were genuinely shocked to see their high school on the list, there are still worries that the process isn't telling the whole story.

Lisa Shellum is Butterfield's superintendent and principal, though she'll probably lose the principal job as part of the turnaround plan. She says the British consultants who wrote her school's evaluation didn't do any real digging during their visit to Butterfield.

"How can you look at the full picture of a whole, entire school district when you're here for less than 12 hours? There's absolutely no way," Shellum said. "They did not specifically interview teachers. They walked into classrooms, sat in the back of the room -- our teachers were frightened. They didn't know what to expect -- the worst two days of their lives, some will tell you."

Shellum says she's baffled by today's report, which, in one section, says Butterfield High is already back on track academically, yet in another section says school leaders have an unrealistic view of their own effectiveness.

Minnesota's list of persistently lowest-performing schools has also shrunk. The state originally identified 34 schools for the turnaround effort, but two have been removed -- Orr High School and Worthington Area Language Academy -- because they're both slated to close.