Sarah Lahm

Why a state known for charter schools may be turning in a different direction

Minnesota is widely known as the land of 10,000 lakes—actually, there are more than 10,000. But the state, which was the first in the nation to pass a charter school law in 1991, could also be described as the land of school choice. Beyond charters, Minnesota is also home to the nation's first comprehensive open enrollment law, dating back to the late 1980s, which allows K-12 students to attend any public school in a district of their choice, provided there is space in the host district.

While the abundance of lakes covering the state was the result of a natural process, it would be hard to describe the rapid growth of charter schools and school choice in the North Star State as some sort of natural occurrence, driven solely by parents and teachers hungry for alternative learning environments. But Minnesota—as well as many other states and the federal government—is awakening to another approach to school improvement that is expanding, from the ground up, in a more natural way: the full-service community schools model.

In contrast to charter schools and other market-based approaches to school improvement, full-service community schools offer a holistic approach to education that is about lifting up students and the communities they live in, rather than pitting schools against one another in the interest of greater choice and competition.

Why Charters and Choice?

An overview of Minnesota's groundbreaking charter school legislation refers to it as an attempt to fund "results-oriented, student-centered public schools." This is an optimistic assessment of the Minnesota law that touches on the educational aspirations that the charter schools system carries, but it entirely sidesteps another important aspect of the system: the connection between charter schools and the privatization of public education.

This push to privatize the nation's public school system has been made possible in large part by the federal government. In the 1990s, the Clinton administration readily embraced the concept of school choice by promising to close the "worst performing schools," among other things, while seeking millions in expansion funds for the growing charter school sector. These efforts snowballed under former President George W. Bush, who funneled more than $1 billion toward supporting charter schools, often at the expense of public school districts.

Former President Barack Obama's administration then continued along this path by pumping billions of additional taxpayer dollars into the hands of charter school operators around the country, thanks to the pro-school choice efforts by Obama's Secretary of Education Arne Duncan.

Wealthy philanthropic organizations, including the Walton Family Foundation and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, also jumped aboard the school choice train, directing millions of dollars toward the privatization of public education in the United States. The interests of both philanthropists and the federal government were most clearly united under former President Donald Trump's leadership, when billionaire school choice advocate Betsy DeVos became the secretary of education.

Minnesota's "first in the nation" charter school law also opened the door to charter school legislation in other states. Since the 2005-2006 school year, charter school enrollment has more than tripled; today, more than 3 million students attend such schools across the country. Only a handful of small, less-populated states, such as Nebraska, Vermont, and North and South Dakota, do not allow charter schools.

In Minnesota, there are currently 180 privately run, publicly funded charter schools, enrolling more than 60,000 students in grades K-12.

Similarly, open enrollment policies have exploded since Minnesota pioneered that option, and now nearly all states offer some sort of intra- and inter-district transfer option.

School reform models built around competition and choice have led to greater disruption in cities such as New Orleans and Chicago, where former Mayor Rahm Emanuel oversaw the shuttering of dozens of neighborhood schools amid a boom in the local charter school market.

In Minnesota, the Saint Paul Public Schools district has been left gasping for air as school choice schemes continue to wreak havoc on the district's enrollment numbers and, subsequently, its finances.

This district is one of the largest and most diverse in the state, if not the nation, with approximately 35,000 students representing a wide array of racial and ethnic backgrounds. Two-thirds of the district's students live in poverty, according to federal income guidelines, and almost 300 students in the district are listed as being homeless.

As a result of more school choice, in 2017, 14,000 school-age children living in the city were not enrolled in the Saint Paul Public Schools district. Instead, they either attended a charter school in or near the city or chose to open-enroll into a neighboring school district.

Just two years later, in 2019, the exodus of families had risen to more than 16,000. Today, more than one-third of all students living in Saint Paul do not attend Saint Paul Public Schools, leaving the district in a constant state of contraction.

The district's lagging enrollment numbers can be attributed to shrinking birthrates and "a rise in school choice options," according to a recent article by Star Tribune reporter Anthony Lonetree.

As a consequence of shrinking enrollments, district officials recently outlined a reorganization proposal that calls for the closure of eight schools by the fall of 2022 "under a consolidation plan," in an attempt to offload expensive infrastructure costs and improve academic options for students.

Charter school options abound in and around Saint Paul, and many represent the worst effects that come with applying unregulated, market-based reforms to public education.

There's the handful of white flight charter schools within the city limits, for example, that have long waiting lists and offer exclusive programming options, such as Great River School (a Montessori school), Nova Classical Academy, and the Twin Cities German Immersion School. On the flip side of this are racially and economically isolated Saint Paul charter schools such as Hmong College Prep Academy, where according to state data 98 percent of the students enrolled are Asian and nearly 80 percent live in poverty, according to federal income guidelines.

Hmong College Prep Academy has been in the news recently, thanks to a scandal that was dubbed a "hedge fund fiasco" by the Pioneer Press. The school is run by a husband-and-wife administrative team who invested $5 million of taxpayer money in a hedge fund, hoping it would provide a return that would help pay for the school's expansion plans. Instead, the hedge fund investment apparently lost $4.3 million, leading to calls for the school's superintendent, Christianna Hang, to be fired—something school officials refused to do. Hang finally submitted her resignation in late October.

In short, the market-based approach to education reform that Minnesota helped pioneer has caused a great deal of disruption, segregation and chaos. In a Hunger Games-type setting, districts and charter schools have been forced to compete for students with white, middle and upper class students and families largely coming out on top.

The end result, critics allege, is an increasingly segregated public education landscape across the state, with no widespread boost in student outcomes to show for it.

An Alternative to Choice and Competition

Thirty years after Minnesota's charter school and open enrollment laws ushered in a mostly unregulated era of school choice, many states—including Minnesota—and federal officials may be turning their attention to the reform model offered by full-service community schools.

Full-service community schools offer a holistic approach to education that is about much more than students' standardized test scores or the number of AP classes a school offers. Instead, this model seeks to reposition schools as community resource centers that also provide academic instruction to K-12, or even Pre-K-12, students.

In Minnesota, a handful of districts have adopted this model, often with impressive results.

The state's longest running full-service community schools implementation is in Brooklyn Center, a very diverse suburb just north of Minneapolis. Since 2009, the city's public school district has operated under the full-service model, providing such things as counseling and medical and dental services alongside the traditional academic offerings of the school system.

In recent months, Brooklyn Center's community schools approach has been put to the test, due to both the ongoing pandemic and the unrest that erupted after George Floyd was murdered by former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin in 2020. In April 2021, as Chauvin's murder trial was underway a few miles away in downtown Minneapolis, a white Brooklyn Center police officer shot and killed a young Black man named Daunte Wright during a traffic stop.

This layering of trauma upon trauma might have broken the Brooklyn Center community apart, as large protests soon took place outside the city's police headquarters and caused disruption among residents—many of whom are recent immigrants and refugees. During this turmoil, school district staffers, already familiar with the needs of their community, were able to quickly mobilize resources on behalf of Brooklyn Center students and families thanks to the existing full-service community schools model.

It's not just urban districts like Brooklyn Center that have benefited from this approach. In rural Deer River, Minnesota—where more than two-thirds of the district's K-12 students live in poverty, according to federal income guidelines, and 85 Deer River students are listed as being homeless—the school district adopted the full-service model in recent years, thanks to startup grants from state and federal funding sources.

Staff in Deer River are reportedly very happy with the full-service model, which allowed them to pivot during the pandemic and provide food, transportation services and other community-specific needs. A local media outlet even noted that the community schools approach enabled school district employees to survey families during the COVID-19 shutdown and provide them with things such as fishing poles and bikes to help them get through this challenging time.

Several other districts across the United States, from Las Cruces, New Mexico, to Durham, North Carolina, have also adopted the full-service community schools approach, which is built around sharing power and uplifting communities rather than closing failing schools and shuttling students out of their neighborhoods through open-enrollment or charter school options.

Community Schools Approach Is on the Rise

Disrupting public education through the proliferation of school choice schemes, including charter schools, has long been the preferred education reform model for politicians and wealthy philanthropists in the United States, and while the charter school industry has been able to score billions in federal funding, the full-service community schools model has instead been relegated to the sidelines.

That's starting to change.

In February 2021, a coalition of education advocacy groups, including the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers, wrote an open letter to congressional leaders asking that more federal dollars be spent on full-service community schools. Most recently, the letter notes, Congress allocated $30 million in funding for such schools nationwide, a number the coalition deemed far too low to meet the "need and demand for this strategy."

Now, the Biden administration has proposed dramatically bumping this funding up to $443 million, based on the support this model has received from people such as the current U.S. Education Secretary, Miguel Cardona. While giving input to Congress on behalf of Biden's proposed budget for the Department of Education, Cardona explained that full-service community schools honor the "role of schools as the centers of our communities and neighborhoods" and are designed to help students achieve academically by making sure their needs—for food, counseling, relationships, or a new pair of eyeglasses, and so on—are also being met.

If the Biden administration succeeds in directing millions more in funding toward full-service community schools, it might not be too late to save public schools, in Minnesota and across the country.

This article was produced by Our Schools. Sarah Lahm is a Minneapolis-based writer and researcher. Her work has appeared in outlets such as the Progressive and In These Times. Follow her on Twitter @sarahrlahm.

How the increasingly popular community schools model is boosting rural America

The often hidden reality of rural schools in America is that a higher percentage of students in rural areas live in poverty compared to metro school districts, according to a 2021 profile of rural schools done by Ohio teacher Daniel Bailey for Edutopia. These students also tend to face unique challenges, including limited access to medical care and ongoing fallout from the opioid crisis that has significantly impacted rural communities across the country.

"Rural districts are an often-overlooked part of the complex American education system," Bailey noted, which is a point that was also echoed in a 2020 article by New York Times education reporter Erica Green, who wrote that despite the fact that one in seven U.S. students attends school in a rural district, these often geographically large school systems have "long been considered the most underfunded and ignored in the country."

These revelations about rural schools aren't news to Deanna Hron, a longtime employee of the Deer River, Minnesota, school system, who is well aware of the challenges facing rural students. When she began her career in Deer River in the 1980s, working as an elementary school teacher, she observed that many of her young students showed up to school without their basic needs being met, including essentials such as dental care, food, and reliable transportation.

She soon realized that it wouldn't be possible to meet all those needs solely within the classroom and did what she could to help students and families access resources within the town of Deer River and Itasca County, its home base.

These days, Hron is largely credited by colleagues with being the life force behind the district's 2016 adoption of a full-service community schools model. Since then, Deer River students and staffers have had more tools in place through this community schools approach, which prioritizes not only the academic needs of kids but also the social, emotional, and physical well-being of the whole community.

Adoptions of the community schools model are often associated with urban school systems such as New York City, Los Angeles, and Cincinnati, but this approach offers substantial benefits for rural districts whose needs are often overlooked by politicians and policymakers.

A quick glance at demographic data for the Deer River school district indicates that the need for such comprehensive support clearly exists.

Deer River Public Schools is a rural district serving approximately 900 students in the densely forested, lake-filled reaches of northern Minnesota. The town of Deer River has an equal number of residents—around 900—but the school district pulls kids in from the surrounding towns and covers more than 500 square miles, boosting both its enrollment numbers and the complexity of issues the school district has to tackle.

Also, the school district is located within the Leech Lake Reservation, which is home to nearly 10,000 members of the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe, and is anchored by the breathtaking expanse of Leech Lake, which boasts nearly 200 miles of picturesque shoreline.

Approximately one-third of Deer River's student population is Native American, and therefore these students belong to a demographic group that is known to be consistently underserved by Minnesota's public schools.

More than two-thirds of the district's K-12 students live in poverty, according to federal income guidelines; 85 Deer River students are listed as being homeless. On top of that, almost 25 percent qualify for special education services.

It's numbers like these, along with the faces and names behind them, that prompted Hron and her fellow Deer River staffers to seek access to more resources through the community schools approach, an effort that was already showing promise in the nearby Duluth public school system.

'Fishing Poles, Beds, and Bikes'

"The momentum for the full-service model started five or six years ago," Hron says, right after district employees successfully lobbied the community for a $10.5 million referendum.

The injection of taxpayer dollars was needed to upgrade the town's elementary school, and, in order to sweeten the pot, Hron and her colleagues decided to pitch the referendum as a way to add more services to the school building.

"We included a senior center and an early childhood wing in our plans," she says, noting that these additions made the project "easier to sell to the public."

It also helped lay the groundwork for what came next: a grant to bring the full-service community schools model to Deer River. In 2015, the Minnesota state legislature authorized $500,000 in one-time startup funds for school districts interested in exploring the community schools approach, and Hron and other Deer River employees jumped at the chance to bring even more services to area students and their families.

The district's longtime superintendent, Matt Grose, was supportive of the idea, Hron recalls, and had already helped bring mental health services to the area's schools. The statewide teachers' union, Education Minnesota, also pitched in with programmatic support and startup resources.

Although there was support for the full-service model in Deer River, thanks in large part to Grose's leadership, it wasn't always easy to get it off the ground. For one thing, while money from the initial implementation grant lasted eight months in Deer River and helped put the full-service community schools model in place, it wasn't enough to sustain it.

District personnel then used some general education fund dollars to cover costs associated with the program's implementation until a federal grant opportunity arose in 2019. The Department of Education authorized grants worth millions of dollars for full-service community schools throughout the U.S. that year, and, while Deer River applied but wasn't selected then, in 2020 the district did receive a five-year grant worth $2.2 million.

The money was a "pie in the sky" dream, says Hron's colleague, Betsy Johnson, and was made all the more substantial thanks to an additional $2.4 million from area organizations such as the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe.

Johnson has worked in the Deer River area since 2007, mostly through a public health program operated by the University of Minnesota Extension. With a background in health and nutrition, Johnson was already serving on the board of Deer River's full-service community schools, when she laughingly says she "failed at retirement" and started working as a grant project manager for the district.

In her role, Johnson also serves as the family resource coordinator, connecting families to the various services available to them through the full-service community schools model.

These services have included access to essential resources during the pandemic, when Deer River staff members delivered groceries to families in need and conducted home visits to make sure students—especially those who were not regularly attending online learning classes—were okay.

An article in the Grand Rapids Herald-Review highlighted Deer River's full-service model, noting how staff provided other specific items requested by families during the COVID-19 shutdown, including "fishing poles, beds, and bikes."

'I Was One of Those Kids'

Positions like the one Johnson holds are possible thanks to the 2020 federal grant Deer River won, and the money also allowed the district to expand this model to the high school level.

There, 2015 Deer River High School graduate Kole Schultz acts as the site coordinator, working directly with students to keep them connected and on track. There is an Anishinaabe education room in the school that is geared toward the needs of the school's Native American students, who may want a place of their own where they can find a friendly face or perhaps an afterschool snack or two.

"I was one of those kids, and I know how delicate things can be," Schultz says, when thinking of the issues faced by these kids, including generational trauma and limited access to modern-day essentials such as consistent broadband services. Schultz left Deer River after graduation but came back when he saw an opportunity, through the site coordinator position, to "help and give back."

The pandemic is making his on-site support more necessary than ever.

In 2020, COVID-19 hit Deer River hard, exacerbating longstanding challenges to the area's health care system—thanks, in part, to the ongoing opioid epidemic—and disrupting the vital cashflow brought to the area through its tourism industry.

The school district has also been grappling with fallout from the shutdown of in-person learning, which Johnson says led to a rise in chronic absenteeism among students. Although the district was able to implement hybrid instruction for most of the 2020-2021 school year, meaning students were not required to be online full time, she estimates that around 30 percent of kids did not consistently show up to school throughout the year.

This happened across the country, too, with Education Week reporting that student absenteeism rates doubled during the pandemic. These disruptions are likely to continue into the 2021 school year in Deer River and elsewhere, as the spread of the Delta variant casts an uncertain light on back-to-school plans.

'Heading Into a Challenging New Year'

"We are heading into a challenging new year," Johnson acknowledges. It will be important to reestablish routines and expectations, she notes, while also stating that many area families are dealing with not only the pandemic but also an uptick in drug overdoses and suicides.

What she wants most for her community is for them to know that the full-service community schools model is intended to be a source of support for everyone in the area, no matter what they might need. Hron remembers a kindergartner whose academic work soared after she received much-needed on-site dental care. Johnson recalls helping an elderly woman access Depend undergarments when she couldn't get to the store on her own.

These seemingly small services are actually essential, both women note, especially in a far-reaching rural community like Deer River. The nearest store might be a 10 or 15-minute drive away, and that store is likely to be a convenience store—not a cheaper, more robustly stocked grocery outlet. Even more important, perhaps, is the fact that many area residents do not have a reliable car at their disposal.

"My hope is that our vision for this full-service community school includes all people in [the] Deer River [district] who might need something," Johnson states.

She and her fellow staff members appear to be off to a good start, and the model they've implemented could serve as an example of the community-changing potential of the full-service community schools in both urban and rural districts.

This article was produced by Our Schools. Sarah Lahm is a Minneapolis-based writer and researcher. Her work has appeared in outlets such as the Progressive and In These Times. Follow her on Twitter @sarahrlahm.

How schools can address their community’s deep trauma

Sizi Goyah, a high school math teacher in Brooklyn Center, Minnesota, is overflowing with enthusiasm these days.

It's summer, and students from Brooklyn Center Community Schools, where he teaches, have been spending their days outside, learning about drones and other hands-on science and technology topics.

"They are seeing engineering coming to life," Goyah says happily, noting that the summer program he's part of is a way to help students re-engage in learning after the disruptions caused by COVID-19 shutdowns.

The summer school option has been brought to life with help from local partners that work alongside Brooklyn Center Community Schools, an approach that is standard practice for this suburban school district.

That's because the district operates under a full-service community school model and is structured around close collaboration between the school system and area resources. This includes not only support for summer school courses but also a whole range of on-site and community-based initiatives.

For Goyah, who says he is "absolutely looking forward" to returning to school in person this fall, the community school model in Brooklyn Center has been an enduring source of stability.

"As a teacher, I see the value in being a community school, and that's why I've stayed in Brooklyn Center for so long," he noted, as he embarks on his 10th year in the district.

The benefit of having a community-centered school dedicated to addressing more than just students' academic needs came into sharp focus in April 2021.

That's when a young Black man, Daunte Wright, was killed by a white police officer during a traffic stop in Brooklyn Center. Wright's death brought more trauma to a community that was already reeling from racial strife, particularly after the 2020 murder of George Floyd in nearby Minneapolis.

Thanks to the existing full-service model, Goyah recalls, Brooklyn Center school staff members and supporters were able to swiftly jump into action on behalf of community members who were struggling with Wright's killing and the unrest that followed.

What Full-Service Community Schools Are Especially Equipped to Do

Offering assistance in a time of crisis is something full-service community schools may be especially equipped to do. That's because they are intended to exist as a hub for the community, with a mission to serve students, staff, and families in a comprehensive manner.

This means districts such as Brooklyn Center, which adopted the model in 2009, provide much more than academic instruction to students.

Instead, Brooklyn Center schools partner with local providers in order to ensure students' needs, as well as those of the wider community, are being met as conveniently and quickly as possible.

In Goyah's view, the benefits of this model are numerous. It delivers a variety of services to students, staff, families, and the broader community, including appointments for mental health counseling, a physical, or an eye exam, for example, that can be scheduled during the school day.

Such access "removes barriers," he states, while pointing out that students in need of eyeglasses can get both the exam and the prescription filled at school, for free.

This expanded view of education is especially important considering the demographics of Brooklyn Center and its public school district. Nearly 75 percent of the 2,300 K-12 students who attend the schools in the district live in poverty, according to the federal criteria.

An 'Educational Equity-Focused Model'

When Wright was killed in April, his death brought renewed attention to the challenges Brooklyn Center is facing, particularly in racial and economic terms. As National Public Radio reporter Becky Sullivan noted, it is Minnesota's "most diverse city," thanks in part to a steep and recent decline in the number of white residents.

While white and middle-class residents have moved away from Brooklyn Center—partially because decent-paying jobs have also left the area—immigrants and people living in poverty have moved in.

Sullivan's piece for NPR contains two stark data points: As the median income "dropped more than 16 percent from 2000 to 2018," the poverty rate "more than doubled since 2000."

This makes Brooklyn Center an ideal place for the kind of wraparound support that a full-service community school can provide, according to a 2019 report from the statewide teachers' union, Education Minnesota.

The report describes full-service community schools as an "educational equity-focused model that places the needs of students at the center of analysis and decision-making in school improvement."

The goal is to tackle the underlying causes of the disparities that show up in the classroom rather than focus more narrowly on students' academic needs, while also empowering community members to solve problems that are relevant to them.

An Alternative to Competition-Based School Reform

Such an approach bears little resemblance to the choice and competition-based school reform plans that have received extensive bipartisan support in recent decades.

Billions in federal taxpayer dollars have in fact been directed to the mostly unregulated charter school industry over the past 20 years, according to watchdog groups such as the Center for Media and Democracy, with the supposed goal of leveling the playing field for students from marginalized communities.

This flood of cash has led to numerous scandals in states such as Ohio and Arizona, where charter school operators have absconded with the public's money, leaving desperate communities in their wake.

Minnesota, where the nation's first charter school opened in 1991, has had its share of such scandals as well. Recently, it was revealed that a Saint Paul charter school called Hmong College Prep Academy lost nearly $5 million in taxpayer money after illegally investing millions in a New Jersey-based hedge fund.

Along the way, students and families have not been better served by the growing charter school industry, from the perspective of groups such as the NAACP and the Network for Public Education. Chicago-based education justice activist Jitu Brown addressed this issue at a forum on public education held in Pittsburgh during the lead-up to the 2020 presidential election.

With a list of Democratic presidential hopefuls in attendance, Brown referred to school choice as an "illusion" and instead advocated for "sustainable community schools" that provide a comprehensive, quality education for all children.

Serving the Community in a Time of Crisis

The idea that a school could function more as a community hub and less like an isolated outpost was put to the test shortly after Wright was killed on a Brooklyn Center street earlier this year.

Wright's death at the hands of a police officer occurred as the murder trial of former police officer Derek Chauvin was wrapping up just a few miles away, in downtown Minneapolis, for the killing of George Floyd in 2020.

Chauvin was eventually found guilty of murdering Floyd, and his trial, along with Wright's killing, put the entire Twin Cities metropolitan area on edge.

It also led to nightly protests at Brooklyn Center Police Department headquarters, which sits across the street from the city's high school campus. The clashes between police and protesters escalated quickly, thanks to an aggressive, militarized response from National Guard soldiers tasked with quashing unrest.

When the officers began firing flash-bangs and tear gas at the crowd, many Brooklyn Center families who live in the area suddenly found themselves in need of food, shelter, and comfort.

This crisis heightened both the ongoing challenges that area residents have been facing, especially in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as the healing potential present in full-service community schools.

"Brooklyn Center is already a food desert," Goyah says, and so the community knew families would have an even harder time accessing groceries amid the ongoing protests.

Donations soon rolled in, allowing Goyah and his colleagues to distribute items such as diapers, Gatorade, food, and COVID-safe masks. Soon, a GoFundMe account that was started on behalf of the community had garnered more than $100,000 in cash donations.

Rhonda Johnson Marn works alongside Goyah at Brooklyn Center High School, where she will soon begin her 10th year as an English teacher. She agrees with Goyah that the district's full-service model made it much easier to serve the community in a time of crisis.

Getting resources to people in need wouldn't have happened "as quickly and efficiently had we not been a community school with existing relationships with organizations and businesses that could donate supplies, money, and time," she said.

One issue full-service community schools often face is a lack of sustainable funding, which Johnson Marn called a hindrance.

Recently, the Biden administration threw its weight behind this model by proposing more than $400 million in new funding to expand these schools. This represents a sharp turn away from the federal government's long-standing investment in school choice schemes that often pull students out of their community.

Now, with examples like that of Brooklyn Center, it is possible to see community schools as a source of support and strength, especially in times of crisis.

Not every school community is facing the kinds of challenges linked to systemic racism and poverty that Brooklyn Center has, of course. But it's certainly possible to see from the past year, when the pandemic forced many school districts to quickly pivot to distance learning, that no community really knows exactly when they'll need more support.

As a new school year begins,⁠ with ample evidence that teachers will need to address pandemic-caused trauma that has affected children and communities, the full-service community school model might just be worth a closer look.

This article was produced by Our Schools. Sarah Lahm is a Minneapolis-based writer and researcher. Her work has appeared in outlets such as the Progressive and In These Times. Follow her on Twitter @sarahrlahm.

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