St. Paul magnet again at heart of district's struggle over race and achievement

Impromptu learning
Principal Adrain Pendelton joins a group of students for an impromptu math memory game in the hallway of Barack and Michelle Obama Service Learning Elementary in St. Paul, Minn., on May 20, 2011.
MPR Photo/Nikki Tundel

A struggling St. Paul elementary school that was once a beacon of racial integration and academic achievement hopes to re-invent itself again, this time taking a page from a successful Afrocentric charter school in north Minneapolis.

Barack and Michelle Obama Service Learning Elementary has not made "Adequate Yearly Progress" under No Child Left Behind for four years. Three-quarters of its students are African-American. Ninety-five percent of its student body receives free or reduced school lunch.

The school will be called Obama Prep this fall, and will feature school uniforms, a longer school day and a college prep program that will add 7th and 8th grades in the future.

St. Paul leaders hope the school named for the country's first black president can do great things once again, and help reduce the disparities in school achievement between white students and black students. Minnesota has one of largest achievement gaps in the country.

A visit to Harvest Prep

Last month, Principal Adrain Pendelton brought her team from Obama Elementary on a scouting mission to north Minneapolis to see Harvest Prep.

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The black students at Harvest Prep, whose poverty rates of close to 90 percent mirror the Obama Elementary students, have made striking gains in their test scores. Pendelton has two years to engineer a similar turnaround at Obama Elementary.

Community meeting at Harvest Prep
Boys at Best Academy, a charter school affiliated with Harvest Prep, hold their morning meeting on Friday, May 13, 2011.
Sasha Aslanian/MPR News

At Harvest Prep, the students are divided into single-sex classrooms in the lower grades so boys can get extra help with reading, and girls with math.

Pendelton watched as boys from kindergarten through fourth grade filed into the library for their morning community meeting. They walked in single-file, holding their hands behind their backs. They wore uniforms of khaki pants and blue polo shirts.

Facing the front of the room in their lines, the boys chanted, "We are the Best," complete with fist pumps in the air. After revving them up, a teacher channeled their energy into the work they had ahead of them that day, reminding them to focus and give it their all.

The meeting wrapped up with the boys singing "Lift Every Voice and Sing."

Eric Mahmoud, executive director and founder of Harvest Prep, stood at the back of the room next to Pendelton, singing along with the students.

Mahmoud has been able to do something few inner city educators can brag about. According to 2010 data, more than three-quarters of his third graders met academic standards, although those gains did taper in later grades.

Pendelton was visibly moved by the scene.

The Harvest Prep playbook

Mahmoud said they school has built a culture of academic success among black students through a relentless focus on passing the statewide tests, the Minnesota Comprehensive Assessments.

A week before the tests, a staff member put on a sweatshirt that said MCA, and jogged into a school rally to the tune of "Rocky." Students shouted that they were going to "knock out the MCA."

Earned opportunity
Danaya Harvey (left), Alana Ingram-Diego (center) and Ta'Vasia Johnson play a game of Mancala during a free period at Barack and Michelle Obama Service Learning Elementary in St. Paul, Minn., on May 20, 2011. The fourth graders earned this opportunity by passing their multiplication tests.
MPR Photo/Nikki Tundel

"I have been here 25 years, and I have never had students so hyped up about a test," said Mahmoud. "It's almost like we brainwashed them. They were hyped up about showing what they knew."

The Obama team asked questions about everything from the discipline policy to school uniforms, mandatory school on Saturdays, a lengthened school day and summer vacation limited to the month of July. Mahmoud said it all adds up.

"I think it's an accumulation of momentum that we've been able to develop over the years," said Mahmoud.


Charters and district schools are usually competitors. In their nearly 20-year history in Minnesota, charters have steadily won over students, and state education dollars have followed them.

In Minneapolis, charter enrollment exploded five-fold in the last decade, to more than 10,000 children, drawing mainly poor children and children of color.

The results vary widely from school to school. The concentration of minority students and poverty is a little less-pronounced among St. Paul charters, but there too, charter enrollment almost tripled in the last decade.

Class work
Alana Ingram-Diego works on a class assignment on May 20, 2011, at Barack and Michelle Obama Service Learning Elementary in St. Paul, Minn.
MPR Photo/Nikki Tundel

St. Paul Superintendent Valeria Silva wants to win back some of those students. But to do it, she needs schools like Obama Elementary to be stronger and more appealing.

"We have to turn around the achievement gap in that building. And we have to create something different," said Silva. "Because apparently it's not working as well as we would like to."

It was Silva who first approached Harvest Prep, according to Pendelton. Silva reached out to the charter school because it was demonstrating success with a very similar demographic.

"We are learning from their experience because that was the original thought about charter schools, that they would be incubators of new reforms and new practices," said Silva. "So we're taking those and we're going to apply it to our Obama school and look and see and analyze how we can especially educate African American students."


Student Danaya Harvey
Danaya Harvey listens as her teacher addresses students in the fourth-grade class at Barack and Michelle Obama Service Learning Elementary in St. Paul, Minn., on May 20, 2011.
MPR Photo/Nikki Tundel

Every day, Pendelton tries to make time to step into classrooms and engage students on what they're learning.

"If students can't articulate what they're learning, it needs to be re-taught," said Pendelton. "We have to move away from 'I taught it and they didn't get it.' They need to articulate so we know that they did get it."

Pendelton is not sure if Obama Prep will completely adopt an Afrocentric curriculum like Harvest Prep in the fall.

Her goal is to create a great school that anyone would want to attend. She has her work cut out for her. Transiency and poverty are huge problems. Nearly one in four students who start the school year do not finish. Just 28 percent of Obama students are proficient in reading. Thirty-nine percent are proficient in math.

In a 4th grade math class, Pendelton points out a scorecard on the wall. Student test scores are unflinchingly displayed.

"I think for so long it was kind of difficult to look at the data," said Pendelton. "But we have to embrace our data and then adjust so we can positively affect it."

For Pendelton, redesigning Obama isn't just about increasing test scores.

"We are saving lives," she said. "We all know the statistics on reading by third grade and incarceration rates. That's who's in our building. The time is now. It's not about passing MCAs. It's about productive students who will live happier, more employable lives."

Seeing a school like Harvest Prep beating the odds with kids like hers inspired her.

"What I was moved about, is black students, poor students are doing it and they can do it. They can succeed at high levels if the environment is conducive to it," Pendelton said.

Over the next two years, Pendelton and her team will try to craft that perfect environment to coax success from these students.

Eventually they hope to add 7th and 8th grades to their college prep program. But she'll need to see gains in each of the two years ahead in order to stave off penalties for failing schools under No Child Left Behind.