Minnesota parents explain charter school choice

Passionate responses from parents help explain why the number of Minnesota students attending charter public schools has grown from less than 100 in 1992 to more than 50,000 this year, the 25th anniversary of the first charter opening. Their views, plus constructive responses from some districts, help demonstrate why this growing movement has bipartisan state and national support.

Referring to the PiM Arts Charter in Eden Prairie, Ed Wilms pointed out that, “The transformation we saw in him from a kid who ate his lunch in the bathroom stall so he didn’t have to talk with anyone to having the lead role in the school musical his senior year was incredible.” Though his three sons are “dramatically different,” Wilms said the school served each of them well.

Kelley Zender, a parent of three children at DaVinci Charter in Ham Lake wrote, “From the moment my children and I walked into DaVinci, we felt the warm and welcoming environment. The staff gets to know each child for who they are and finds amazing ways to reach each child at their academic level. All three of my children have grown leaps and bounds in all areas of their life; academic, social, problem solvers, and emotionally.”

As Elizabeth Ryan explained, “Where our student was lost and bored in a traditional setting, at Northwest Passage Charter High School (Coon Rapids) he is challenged and able to meet these challenges with confidence, maturity, responsibility, and grace.”

Khadija Abdi wrote: “I like Ubah Medical Academy (in Hopkins) for its uniqueness to connect with families and students. I’ve had four children go through this HS and I feel their learning needs were individualized and personalized to their learning needs.”

Tom Sagstetter explained: “We chose Spectrum (in Elk River) because it was a smaller school that would challenge our kids. We really like the smaller class sizes, the focus on post-secondary options, and community involvement from the students and Spectrum.”

Charters are free, public, non-sectarian schools with no admissions tests. Their focus and curriculum varies widely, while they are required to take statewide tests. As someone told me, “When you’ve seen one charter school, you’ve seen one charter.” A few examples:
•Kaleidoscope, an elementary Montessori in Otsego
•Lionsgate in Minnetonka, which focuses on students on the autism spectrum
•Two very different K-12 schools in Stillwater — New Heights and St. Croix Prep
•Project-based schools making extensive use of the community such as Northwest Passage in Coon Rapids and River Grove in Wilder Forest, near Marine on St. Croix
•Arts Focused Schools like Arts and Science Charter in Isanti, DaVinci in Ham Lake or PiM Arts Charter in Eden Prairie
•College prep schools including Spectrum in Elk River, Ubah Medical Academy in Hopkins or Eagle Ridge in Eden Prairie

Here are examples of parental comments, explaining why they had selected a charter for one or more of their children.

Tom Sagstetter explained: “We chose Spectrum because it was a smaller school that would challenge our kids. We really like the smaller class sizes, the focus on post-secondary options, and community involvement from the students and Spectrum.

“Spectrum has helped my children be a bit more focused on longer term goals, and establishing plans to meet their goals. They both realize that their plans may change, but if you don’t have goals and plans not much gets accomplished.”

Kathy Reed wrote: “We chose Spectrum High School for our three boys for several reasons including the small class size, college preparatory curriculum and the reputation the student body has for being generally “good” kids. We have enjoyed being involved in the school and getting to know the teaching staff personally. Our kids have benefitted from the close attention they have received from their teachers as well as from the great friendships they have formed at school. When issues arise in need of resolution it has always been very easy to connect with staff and/or administration to find solutions. Spectrum has been a great choice for our family!”

Andrea Mitlyng wrote about Kaleidoscope Charter School: “When my oldest was going into kindergarten we visited a few schools in the area. We selected KCS because it had all day every day kindergarten, small class sizes and such a welcoming environment. We have stayed at KCS because it has been such a great partner in my kids’ education. I don’t have any other school as a reference but I really like the fact that every teacher/staff member at KCS knows my children and talks with them. My kids are very comfortable there and have always looked forward to school. I enjoy that they are learning while having fun!”

While there’s still plenty of work to do, charters have helped produce progress. Minnesota’s graduation rates have increased over the last decade, and the number of graduates who have to take remedial courses at colleges has declined from about 29 percent to about 21 percent.

It’s also been encouraging to see some districts, such as Forest Lake, Mankato, Rochester and St. Paul, create new options in response to charters. Moreover, several local teacher union presidents and charter advocates joined together to convince the 2016 Legislature to allocate $500,000 to help district educators create new “teacher led” district options, similar to some Minnesota charters. And some districts such as Farmington and Spring Lake Park have asked for and received greater flexibility, similar to charters, so they can make revisions they think are important, in response to what some call “the charter challenge.” District schools are good options for many students.

Noting the progress in Minnesota, more than 40 other states and the District of Columbia have adopted charter laws. Chartering offers rural, suburban and urban families more good options. And all this started, 25 years ago, here in Minnesota. — Joe Nathan (Editor’s note: was a Minnesota public school teacher and administrator who directs the Center for School Change. Reactions welcome, [email protected])