GUEST COLUMN: Local schools receive important state award

What does it take to help students from low-income families succeed? Some 131 Minnesota district and charter public schools have just earned an important state award because they have answers. They have earned the Minnesota Department of Education designation of “reward schools.”

This includes district and charter schools in Bloomington, Burnsville, Eden Prairie, Edina, Fridley, Maple Grove, Rosemount-Apple Valley-Eagan, Farmington, Fridley, Hopkins, Lakeville, Minnetonka, Mounds View, St. Anthony-New Brighton, Waconia, Wayzata and Westonka.

Brenda Cassellius, Minnesota commissioner of education, released a list this week of the state’s top 15 percent of the 853 Minnesota public schools receiving federal funds to help students from low-income families. These awards were part of a Minnesota Department of Education announcement showing that many of Minnesota’s schools are making progress on statewide tests.

What I heard over and over in talking by phone or email with more than 25 district and charter leaders around the state were:

–Everyone in the school believing they can make a big difference is vital.

–Success comes in part from regular measurement to see which students are gaining the expected skills and knowledge.

–After assessing students, it’s important to give some students additional assistance. Young people learn at different rates.

–There’s no single best curriculum.

–Many of the most effective schools have found ways to work closely with families.

–It is not necessary to “teach to the test.” A rich, engaging curriculum, plus other strategies mentioned above, helps young people make progress.

Area schools, listed by area, receiving the honor included:

–Bloomington: Seven Hills Classical Academy.

–Eden Prairie: Prairie View Elementary and Eagle Ridge Academy (charter).

–Edina: Cornelia Elementary and Creek Valley (recognized for the third time).

–Fridley: Hayes Elementary.

–Hopkins: Tanglen Elementary and Ubah Medical Academy (charter).

–Maple Grove: Beacon Academy.

–Minnetonka: Deephaven and Excelsior elementary schools (both recognized for the third time).

–Mounds View: Bel Air and Sunnyside elementary schools.

–St. Anthony-New Brighton: Wilshire Park Elementary.

–Wayzata: Birchview and Sunset Hill (recognized for the third time) elementary schools.

A list of all Minnesota schools receiving these federal funds, and their MDE designation, is available here:

Here is what I heard from leaders at some of the schools that the Minnesota Department of Education is honoring.

Brian McGinley is principal at Deephaven Elementary in the Minnetonka district. The school has been recognized three times by MDE and has just been selected as a national “Blue Ribbon” School by the U.S. Department of Education. Via email, McGinley wrote, in part: “The Deephaven staff and community support all of (their) students in overcoming barriers to learning and inspiring success for all students.

“Staff, students and parents work together at Deephaven to create partnerships for learning. Staff has increased student achievement by:

–Differentiating instructional strategies in math, reading and writing.

–K-5 coordination of science instruction.

–Creating supporting relationships through the use of C.A.R.E.S., with a special emphasis on kindness.

–Improving information literacy and technology proficiencies.”

He concluded, “We are thrilled to be recognized with the highest national honor a school can receive.”

Lee Drolet, principal at Excelsior Elementary in Minnetonka Public Schools, described the school, which has been recognized three times by MDE. “I believe our success is linked to the differentiation practices we have in place. These include:

“Assessment: Each fall, we start by pretesting and assessing students to determine where they are achieving in relationship to instructional targets. We keep monitoring their progress throughout the year. We use assessment as the basis of instructional decisions on a daily, weekly and monthly basis to form and reform groupings or individual support.

“Instruction: We have developed reading and language arts teaching practices called guided reading and math where the teacher works with small groups on a daily basis to provide instruction that is matched to each child’s needs.

“Aligned instruction: We are consistent across all classrooms in our expectations for implementation of what we consider to be key instructional practices that reach all children. We talk about instruction at staff meetings and team gatherings. We mentor new teachers to use these practices across the building and then the principal supports use of practices in my supervision of teachers.

“Social-emotional environment: We expect all adults to treat children with love and support and to communicate how important learning is to their future. All teachers are expected to create a classroom community where children belong and want to come to school.”

Karen Keffeler, principal at the three-times honored Sunset Hills Elementary, told me via email: “I think our results are due to a number of factors, first and foremost being the relationships that are formed between teacher and student. Being comfortable in a classroom allows students to take risks and persist in their learning. Our teachers also have high expectations for each and every student, and do whatever they can to help them be successful. Finally, Sunset Hill teachers are passionate in their own learning. They continue to learn new and better strategies that allow students to share and apply their knowledge.”

These are among the 131 schools statewide that were given the “reward school” designation. The commissioner also praised 27 schools whose scores previously landed them at the bottom but have now made enough progress to have their low-performing designation removed.

Cassellius told me in a phone call that she hopes to make much more use of the state’s most effective district and charter public schools. This might be, for example, via summer workshops with other schools. That’s a very good idea.

Progress is possible. These schools are helping show how it can be done.


Joe Nathan, formerly a Minnesota public school teacher and administrator, directs the Center for School Change. Reactions welcome, [email protected]