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Sharing the Success of Charters
July 2005
By Joe Nathan

There were both tears and laughter as youngsters from Minnesota's charter schools read award-winning essays from the state capitol steps during National Charter School Week. These stories help explain why the number of Minnesota students enrolled in these innovative schools has jumped more than 70 percent over the last four years. These schools are changing lives. Their stories also help illustrate where the charter movement needs to go in the next five years: toward greater quality and visibility.

Rochelle Holl, a student at El Colegio in Minneapolis, won first place in the high school division. Holl wrote, "Two years ago, I wouldn't have anticipated graduating from high school. I was failing classes, getting into a lot of fights with other students, and often skipped school. I was really melancholic, suicidal and anti-social...Then I found out about El Colegio...(this) is a good school for meI can be who I want, I can work at my pace and my level of learning...For the first time, I find myself wanting to get up and go to school...Finally, after the long quest, I found the rest of the pieces to the puzzle known as school years."

Liam Gibb, a fourth grader at St. Croix Prep in Stillwater, won the elementary division. Gibb wrote. "This year I'm learning Latin, Spanish and French. I couldn't learn these languages at other schools...I have a private violin lesson, play with our school orchestra, and learn about the language of music...all these things will help me grow in life."

Mai Chou Yang of Hope Academy won the middle school division. She recalled, "At my old school I was bullied and had no true friends. I was like a dog that followed people and did what they did. It was sad and I needed it to end...(Then she transferred to Hope Academy, where she found that) the teachers and students were all like happy family. Everybody is so honest to each other. This is what I've been looking for."

Meghan Laughlin of Metro Deaf tied for 2nd among middle school students. She wrote, "There has been a misconception that deaf people tend to be behind hearing people...I was so surprised that I was learning the same thing as my older hearing brother...MDS has many deaf teachers, and they did go to colleges and get degrees just as hearing teachers. I am deaf and proud of it!"

The writing contest was sponsored by the Center for School Change at the Humphrey Institute, University of Minnesota, where I work. Award winning essays are posted on our website. Holding this essay contest, asking students to read at the state capitol, and sending guest columns out around the state about the contest are only a few of the ways we are trying to promote quality and visibility.

Yes, the charter ideal of opportunity, responsibility, and choice make great sense. But families and policy-makers are not satisfied with good ideas. They want to see results.

We need MANY MORE excellent charters. We need more sharing of best practices among all schools. And we need to become much more aggressive about getting the word out about successes.

With help from several foundations, the California Charter Association and Center for School Change wrote a free report, "Expanding the Circle," that describes how charter folks can work more effectively with the news media. It's available free, on our website.

We cannot wait for charter opponents to criticize. We need to be out there--aggressively. Our students will learn more, and so will the broader community. More quality and more visibility--both are vital for the next five years.

Joe Nathan is the director of the Center for School Change at the University of Minnesota

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