New charter school aims to close achievement gap

Apple game
Kindergarten students at Hiawatha Leadership Academy play a game designed to promote team building.
MPR Photo/Laura McCallum

It's the second day of school at the new Hiawatha Leadership Academy, and the school's 150 kindergarden and first grade students are still learning the rules.

In one classroom, teacher Lindsey Lynch tells her kindergarten students to pay attention.

"Scholars, all eyes should be facing this way," said Lynch, ringing a bell.

First graders
First grader Myonne Braxton said she likes the uniforms the students wear at Hiawatha Leadership Academy.
MPR Photo/Laura McCallum

At HLA, students are called scholars. They're dressed in the school's uniform -- white or light blue shirts with the Hiawatha Leadership Academy logo, and khaki pants or skirts.

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About 90 percent of the school's students are low-income. One-third of the students are African-American, another third are Latino. The remaining third includes American Indian, multiracial and white students.

The school's founder, Jon Bacal, said no Minnesota school has successfully closed the academic achievement gap between low-income students of color and white middle-income students.

"We are the first school in this state to model ourselves very intentionally, very closely, after the relatively small number of schools elsewhere that have closed the gap," said Bacal.

Bacal and his principal visited three schools across the country -- Cesar Chavez Academy in Colorado, Milwaukee College Preparatory School and KIPP Shine Prep in Houston. KIPP, the Knowledge is Power Program, plans to open two middle schools in Minneapolis next year.

Bulldog song
Teacher Lindsey Lynch practices a song with her students, nicknamed the Yale Bulldogs.
MPR Photo/Laura McCallum

The HLA officials found some common elements in the schools they visited -- high expectations for students, longer school days and an emphasis on preparing students for college.

At Hiawatha Leadership Academy, students begin the school day at 7:45 a.m., and finish at 4:50 p.m. That's more than nine hours a day, nearly three hours longer than a typical public school day. The school year will run 182 days, 11 days longer than nearby schools.

Bacal said if students stay at Hiawatha Leadership Academy as it expands through the 12th grade, they would get the equivalent of an extra seven years of attendance in a regular school district.

"The tremendous additional amount of learning time is something that's very different," Bacal said. "The tremendous focus on developing leadership, developing citizenship. The tremendous focus on college. Each of the classrooms has actually adopted a college."

HLA principal Shoua Faith Moua said the school won't tolerate excuses for students not learning.
MPR Photo/Laura McCallum

In Lindsey Lynch's kindergarten class, students have adopted Yale University. They've come up with a Yale Bulldog handshake, and learned a new bulldog song.

School officials say they expect 100 percent of these students to graduate from college. That's a very ambitious goal, given that only about 5 percent of African-American and Latino students in Minneapolis earn a four-year college degree.

Principal Shoua Faith Moua said while the school's goals of preparing students for college and closing the achievement gap may seem outrageous, she thinks they are attainable. Moua said one reason is that she's hired some highly-motivated teachers willing to work long hours toward the school's mission.

"I said that hours are going to be 7:30 to 5, summers - we're going to start you up early," Moua said. "We're going to spend nine and a half hours a day, we're going to be training in the curriculum, doing lots of school culture building and meeting families."

The school hired recruiters to knock on doors in the neighborhood, finding families of young children looking for a school with academic rigor.

Moua points to a poster-size sheet of paper hanging in her office that lists what she calls the school's "clear bottom line." It says "No Excuses - Don't even think about a blame game if students aren't learning."

Moua said that attitude will help the school's teachers, as they aim to improve academic performance for low-income students in south Minneapolis.