Minneapolis Public Schools partner with celebrity educator Eric Mahmoud to battle achievement gap

/ 26 March 2012 / jennifer

Alleen Brown, Twin Cities Daily Planet, March 26, 2012 –

Harvest Prep fourth graders read after finishing an assignment. (Photo by Alleen Brown)

Eric Mahmoud is something like a celebrity in the world of Minneapolis achievement gap fighters. The director of North Minneapolis charter schools Harvest Prep and Best Academy is everywhere. He’s in the paper, he’s at the legislature, he’s doing this speaking engagement and that one. And now he’s teaming up with Minneapolis Public Schools.

This is one of two articles about Harvest Prep schools. Click here for No short-cut to success: How Harvest Prep beats the achievement gap in Minneapolis

Think achievement gap Minneapolis, think Eric Mahmoud. That’s because his schools beat it. In a city where only 41 percent of African American students scored proficient on 2011’s MCA reading tests, 77 percent of Harvest Prep’s mostly African American student body met or exceeded state standards. In one all-boys third grade class, every single student exceeded math proficiency standards last year.

Only a couple years ago, Minneapolis Public Schools saw those numbers as a threat. In 2008, Mahmoud pulled out of a nine-year relationship with the district, which had acted as the charter’s authorizer. He was uninterested in working with an authorizer that saw his school as competition, he said.

It seems his worries have been dispelled. At the end of February, the Minneapolis school board approved a plan to authorize four new charter schools to be opened by Mahmoud in the next ten years. It’s an ambitious plan and one that indicates a new direction for education in Minneapolis.

The district is building a portfolio of non-traditional schools, with practice-sharing in mind. The Office of New Schools, opened in 2009, already authorizes four charter schools, including Minneapolis College Prep, the offshoot of a successful charter chain from Chicago, set to open this fall. The district is also in the process of opening Pierre Bottineau French Immersion, a site-governed school, and the New Schools office recently released a request for proposals for an innovative, technology-centered school – could be a charter, could be site-governed, could be something else. The office hopes the district will learn from the new schools and vice versa.

“Our end goal is improving the entire system,” said Office of New Schools director Sara Paul, who said the district may send MPS teachers to Harvest Prep on special assignment. “How are we going to look at what’s working and what they’re doing and replicating it across the district?”

That’s a good question. It’s unclear how much of what’s happening at Harvest Prep can be replicated on a district level. Students are in school 35 percent more than MPS students. The school day goes from 8 am to 4:45 pm, and the year is 196 days long, compared to Minneapolis’s 172. Class sizes are capped at 25, and teachers are expected to work 60 to 70 hours every week.

Harvest Prep teacher Goldee Shear taught in Minneapolis Public Schools for more than ten years. In her third year at Harvest Prep she said she works longer, more intense hours than she did at the district.  “Being in this environment has to be by choice,” she said. “If you don’t love it, you won’t do well.”

In district schools, schedule changes have to be approved by a union and a school board, who answer to thousands of teachers and parents. Other Harvest practices, like the school’s intense focus on reading and math, its use of data, and its team-teaching system, could potentially be replicated more easily.

Of course the idea is not to create copies of Harvest Prep all over the city. “One size doesn’t fit all,” said Mark Bonine, the associate superintendent in charge of charter schools, contract alternatives and site-governed schools. “It’s about quality and innovation, with the goal of meeting the needs and standards for all of our students.”

It’s Mahmoud’s team, not the district, that will do the hiring, fundraising and reorganizing required to open the new schools.

The first Mastery school is set to open in August of this summer to around 180 students in kindergarten through 2nd grade. Mahmoud said it won’t necessarily focus on African American students, as his current schools do. It will be divided by gender, like Best Academy.

A second school is planned for fall 2015, then one in 2016 and one in 2017. A charter management organization, still being developed, will run them. The new schools will be elementary and middle schools, likely all located in North Minneapolis. Mahmoud said there’s potential for themes like fine arts or science and technology.

Mahmoud said finding enough teachers with the right attitude and the willingness to put in long hours, could prove difficult. Scaling up organizationally will also be a challenge. Said Mahmoud, “If we can control the growth, as we get bigger we’re going to get better, because we’re going to bring on additional hard-working people.”

He said it’s unlikely that he would have taken on this project without the support of the district. “It’s less in Harvest Prep’s interest and more in the interest of the children,” he said, adding simply, “Minneapolis has all of our children.”

“One of the things I want to demonstrate is that our model can be successful with all students.”

Admissions director Gaynell Ballard-Ray has worked for Harvest Prep for eight years, and she’s seen a lot of change. “There’s never a dull moment,” she said. “It’s every year almost since I’ve been here, the program has increased, their style of teaching has changed tremendously, for the better.

“I don’t see it as being a greater challenge. I see it as something that needs to be done and needs to be done as soon as possible,” she said. “To me, it’s crucial.