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In dozens of Minnesota schools, entire classes are failing to meet minimum state standards

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In dozens of Minnesota schools, entire classes are failing to meet minimum state standards

Feb 27, 2024 | 7:00 am ET
By Christopher Ingraham
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In dozens of Minnesota schools, entire classes are failing to meet minimum state standards
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Photo by Getty Images.

On Jan. 12, the Legacy of Dr. Josie R. Johnson Montessori School, a public charter school in Minneapolis, abruptly shut its doors, leaving dozens of students and their families scrambling to find new schools.

The school was $700,000 in debt, and had reported enrollment figures to the state Department of Education that were three times higher than its actual numbers, according to reporting by the Sahan Journal. The state immediately ceased payments to the school when it found out, and with no money in the bank administrators had little choice but to shut it down.

Along with finances, student achievement had fallen by the wayside. In 2023, not a single one of the school’s fourth-graders met bare-minimum statewide proficiency standards in reading or math.

JJ Legacy isn’t alone in that regard. In 2023, there were 78 public schools in Minnesota where zero students in at least one entire grade level were rated “proficient” in the Minnesota Comprehensive Assessment tests in reading or math, according to Department of Education data analyzed by The Reformer. These numbers exclude alternative learning programs for students who struggle with traditional school, as well as distance learning programs.

This is an extremely conservative measure of student underperformance: Substantively there is little difference between a school where 0% of fifth-graders meet standards and one where 5% or 10% do, and if those latter schools were included the list would be much larger.

For comparison, about 50% of all Minnesota public school students rate as proficient at math and reading. That number has been declining since the onset of the pandemic.

Most of the schools with extremely high failure rates — 59 of the 78 — are public charter schools like JJ Legacy. Many bear lofty names — Rochester STEM Academy, Skyline Math and Science Academy, Minnesota Excellence in Learning Academy, to name a few — that belie the realities of low achievement at those schools. 

At more than half of those charters, fewer than 10% of the students are white, and at more than one-quarter there are no white students at all. Many are based in economically challenged areas of the Twin Cities and some, like the Banaadir Academy, exclusively serve particular communities, like Somali immigrants.

Critics have long pointed to charter schools’ racial homogeneity as a driver of poor academic performance. 

“In Minnesota, charter schools are at the forefront of school segregation,” according to a 2017 analysis by the Institute on Metropolitan Opportunity at the University of Minnesota Law School. “Of the 50 most racially concentrated Twin Cities schools, 45 are charters.” The authors argue that many charter schools are effectively “poverty academies” on account of their “heavy concentration of nonwhite and low-income students.”

The Institute on Metropolitan Opportunity has consulted on a lawsuit aiming to desegregate public schools in the metro, Cruz-Guzman v. State of Minnesota. One of the alleged violations was the state’s exemption of charter schools from rules governing desegregation and integration. Three metro charter schools intervened in the case, siding with the defendant.

Minnesota’s charter schools perform worse than traditional public schools, on average, on statewide standardized tests. In 2023, 38% of students at the average charter school were proficient at reading, compared to 49% of public school students. The math divide is even starker, with public schools averaging 46% proficiency and charters just 26%. 

The data is consistent with a recent report from the Institute on Metropolitan Opportunity that compared the Twin Cities area high schools that send the highest percentage of students to college to the schools that have the lowest four-year graduation and college enrollment rates.

The top 30 schools send roughly two-thirds of their students to a four-year program after graduation, while at the bottom 30 schools just 12% of students go to a four-year program. Among these struggling schools, 22 are charter schools, compared to only five in the top 30.

University of Minnesota researchers have found that even after controlling for income, race, language proficiency, special education and other factors, the typical charter school lags behind its traditional counterparts. Their work has suggested that charter school students fare worse, overall, than students at similarly situated traditional schools.

That achievement gap has caused friction between charter schools and traditional public schools across the state. In St. Cloud, for instance, school board members say charter schools siphon away students and funding from traditional public schools, only to send many students back after they fail to meet achievement benchmarks.

Josh Crosson, executive director of Minnesota education nonprofit EdAllies, said the criticism of charter schools is misplaced. “Our system has historically failed students of color and students with disabilities due to insufficient resources and a lack of urgency in implementing student-centered changes. Blaming their educational outcomes on a family’s decision to enroll their children in culturally affirming schools deliberately overlooks our state’s long history of failing to offer adequate opportunities for historically underserved students.”

Darius Husain, executive director of St. Paul’s Face to Face Academy, a charter school serving kids at high risk of dropping out of high school, said in an interview that “many charter schools like Face to Face Academy are working with students and families that are the most marginalized in our communities. These are students who have a long history of being truant, failing classes, and are on the verge (or have already) dropped out of school.”

It takes time to re-engage those students in the learning process, Husain said, and they often show improvements that aren’t necessarily reflected in test scores. (In 2023, students at Face to Face academy scored slightly above the statewide average on math, and not enough students took the reading MCA to calculate an average.)

Tony Simmons, executive director of the High School for Recording Arts in St. Paul, said in an interview that most of the students he works with have already dropped out of one or more traditional schools, and that anywhere from 35% to 50% of them lack a permanent residence.

“There are inequities in our society and some are really deep and complex,” Simmons said. “Charters are ready to take on some of the most difficult challenges around re-engaging young people.” 

The problems also aren’t limited to majority-minority charters in the Twin Cities. At nine of the charters on the list with zero proficiency, more than 75% of the students are white, and all but one of those schools are located in greater Minnesota. They include the Three Rivers Montessori school in Elk River, where no fifth-graders are proficient in math, and the New Country School in Henderson, where 33 fifth- and sixth-graders took the state math test without a single one passing.

A number of struggling public schools are on the list as well. At the schools serving the Red Lake Indian Reservation, not a single student in grades three through eight met math proficiency standards in 2023. At Brooklyn Center Middle School, 107 sixth-graders took the math MCAs last year. None performed at grade level.

The Northland Community School District in rural Cass County aims to “educate and inspire all learners to reach their full potential.” In 2023, no high school students in the district met state minimum standards for math. At the public school in Goodridge, in northwest Minnesota’s Pennington County, 91% of the students are white and none of the seventh- or eighth-graders are proficient at math.

Overall the diversity of schools represented in the data — from majority-minority Twin Cities charters to virtually all-white public schools in greater Minnesota — reflect the tremendous complexity of student achievement and the factors driving it. Educational success depends on the concerted effort of everyone from policymakers to school administrators to teachers, students and their families.

Failure at any one of those levels can cause a student to fall through the cracks. But when entire classrooms are being left behind, it suggests a more profound systemic breakdown. 

“Our kids, no matter their backgrounds, have incredible potential and with the right supports, they can succeed,” said EdAllies’ Crosson.