At Excell Academy students wear navy-blue uniforms with the school's logo -- a child in the shape of a star. Nearly all of the school's students are African American, and most are low-income. Every morning, they recite what the school calls a "daily affirmation." The students pledge to listen and learn in school, and chant that they are gifted, talented and creative.
"I can accomplish whatever I set out to do. Therefore, today will be, not maybe or might, but today will be one of the best days of my life," they chant.
The school was founded more than six years ago with fewer than 70 kids. The school rents space in an office complex that also includes a couple of retailers.
Principal Doug Seiler says more than 300 students now cram into the converted office space.
"When I came on three years ago, I'm guessing there was around 150," he said. "So we've doubled since that time, and we're running out of room. So we really needed this facilities grant to come through for us."
Excell Academy will receive about $500,000 to expand its space.
The school's founder and executive director, Sabrina Williams, says the expansion will add classrooms, music and art space, a bigger cafeteria and a gymnasium with natural light. At a news conference announcing the facility grants, Williams was ecstatic.
"This is like winning a Grammy award in the charter school world," Williams said.
Williams promised education officials that none of the grant money will go to waste. Some charter schools have closed in recent years because of financial problems, and some legislators have called for greater state oversight of charter schools.
State Education Commissioner Alice Seagren says the 19 charter schools selected for the facility grants were carefully chosen to make sure they'll use the money wisely. She says the schools have demonstrated academic achievement.
"Also that they have a good stable curriculum, and plans for the future, that whatever they're building is going to enhance their academic program. So you heard the kids say, 'Oh, wow, we're going to get a big gym.' But the reason they're getting the gym is because right now, they're using this small space for multiple purposes, for educational activities and performances and it's just not adequate," Seagren said.
The list of schools getting the grants includes five schools in St. Paul, four in Minneapolis and two in Duluth.
Morgan Brown, assistant deputy secretary for the U.S. Department of Education, says the schools will use the latest research on building design for their construction projects. Brown says that includes things like the positive effect of natural lighting on student test scores, and how schools can use different kinds of work stations to help students learn. Brown says that could be useful for other public schools as well.
"There's an amazing amount of research, actually, that's been done on school design and how those facilities contribute to student learning, but not much of it has been implemented," according to Brown. "And so we see this as a chance to take the latest, best research on school design, and demonstrate it in 19 schools, and then evaluate it, and tell other schools across the country what we learned."
Brown says Minnesota is one of four states receiving federal money for charter school building projects. Minnesota has led the charter school movement nationwide, and Brown says it's also ahead of other states in providing state funding to help charter schools pay for the buildings they're renting.
The state is providing $28 million in rental assistance this year to help many of Minnesota's 132 charter schools.