A Minneapolis school that made a bold effort to close the academic achievement gap for Latino middle-school students is closing.
San Miguel Middle School is one of three Catholic schools in the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis that announced last week it would be closing at the end of the school year.
The school was at full enrollment, and its graduates made impressive gains in high school graduation rates, but ultimately, the school says it was a casualty of the recession.
It doesn't take long to meet the entire 8th grade of San Miguel Middle School in the King Field neighborhood of South Minneapolis. The whole school has only 60 kids. Each student, neatly dressed in khaki pants, a white polo shirt and a blue sweatshirt with the school logo, gives a firm handshake and makes eye contact.
These students represent one of the most struggling groups in Minnesota schools: children of low-income Latino immigrants. Many of them started here several years behind grade level.
"We're trying to work with students who might otherwise drop out," said Ben Murray, San Miguel's President.
Murray helped found the school 11 years ago. For the first three years of its existence, Murray and the whole staff went without paychecks, and lived in communal church housing, just so they could launch a school they thought could improve a Latino graduation rate of only 40 percent in Minnesota.
"We have 92 percent of our students who graduated over last 4 years, are still in high school or progressing toward that high school graduation," Murray said. "Our rate of high school graduation fluctuates between about 78 percent and 90 percent."
Murray said the school professionalized its staff and added a full-time staffer to check in weekly with San Miguel grads at 18 high schools and help them to graduate.
Edward (school policy prohibits the school from releasing students' last names), who's an eighth-grader, regrets he won't get that graduate support when he goes to high school next year.
"I thought the school was going to keep on going and I'd be able to come back and visit and see all my old teachers and everything, so it really impacted me knowing that the school was going to close," Edward said.
Edward said he's proud of how much he improved his test scores from when he arrived as a sixth-grader. He also credits San Miguel with turning him into a reader.
School President Ben Murray said telling the tight-knit community that the school would close has been difficult. Each family got a phone call last Friday and students were told in person; the school was proud of all they had done.
"We stressed that to the students. That it had nothing to do with their academic achievement, but really it's a numbers," Murray said. "It's the financing and the revenue model for the school."
By revenue model, Murray means tuition free. San Miguel is part of a national network of 64 NativityMiguel schools that don't rely on tuition. Parents pay only a $200 book fee. It costs the school $14,000 a year to educate a child.
Murray said it's not cheap to help kids who are behind catch up. He said trained teachers, small class sizes, two hours of extra instruction time a day, and free busing anywhere in Minneapolis helped make a difference.
Murray said donors were steadfast in their support, but the tough economy was insurmountable. The philanthropic world is swamped with urgent priorities. So, facing a projected $300,000 shortfall next year, Murray said school leaders decided they couldn't continue cutting the program without damaging it. They wanted to inform families early and give them time to find new schools for fall.
Sister Mary Willette, the school's principal, said her most immediate concern is making sure students are in the strongest shape possible by the end of the school year to face their futures without the support of San Miguel.
"It's difficult to close because I feel like we kind of have something figured out," Willette said. "On the other hand, if we are going to close, it feels good to be able to say, 'we're going strong."
Carlos Mariani Rosa, executive director of the Minnesota Minority Education Partnership and a state representative who serves on the K-12 education policy and finance committees, said he was sad to hear San Miguel was closing.
"This is as someone who doesn't know a whole lot about San Miguel, but I do know a lot about this student population, this community and the challenges that it faces," Mariani Rosa said. "The last thing we need --whether it's public or private -- are places that are having success going out of business.
"We need more successful places, at the very least. I hope whatever San Miguel was doing to produce a different rate of success than many other schools with this student population doesn't get lost," Mariani Rosa said.
The funding from the archdiocese that went to San Miguel will now follow its students in the form of financial aid if they choose to attend other Catholic schools. Two smaller Catholic schools in Red Wing and Hampton will also close this year as part of a move by the Archdiocese to restructure schools that are struggling.
Eight other schools that underwent urgent reviews late last year committed to make changes to ensure their long-term viability.