The Power of High Expectations

There are many reasons why Friendship Academy of the Arts (FAA), a charter public school in south Minneapolis, is this year’s top Minneapolis Star Tribune’s “Beating the Odds” school in the Twin Cities. With a student body of over 97% on free and reduced lunch, they topped all metropolitan schools with at least 85% poverty level in both reading proficiency (83.3%) and math proficiency (90.3%).

On Tuesday, I named them “The Little Engine that Did.” How did they do it?

According to recently retired Executive Director Nell Collier, “Through the years, we experienced some ups and downs, but we never entertained a deficit perspective. We always adopted an attitude of accepting the truth, but determining what we needed to do to improve, and then doing it.”

When the school learned four years ago that their authorizer was recommending closure due to poor academic test scores, “our school board, staff, and many community stakeholders believed in our power to overcome obstacles and continue to bring value to students and families,” said Collier. “We found what we needed to correct, made necessary corrections, and student scores began to climb.”

FAA hired an Academic Director and began to train staff in SIOP (Sheltered Instruction Observation Protocol) and Thinking Maps, by David Hyerle, as strategies to accelerate students’ intellectual performances. They became prolific in using data to inform instruction and trained their students to do the same. Their students knew the academic goals they were striving to achieve and became competitive against themselves to improve their skills. Sounds a lot like personalized learning to me!

“Every teacher expected students to produce high intellectual learning performances,” continued Collier. “When students were questioned, each one learned to respond in complete sentences to meet teacher expectations. . . . We changed our reference to our learners by calling them scholars. They come in knowing they are college bound.”

Though Ms. Collier retired to become the school’s Arts Enrichment Coordinator, FAA is destined to stay on course with high expectations of its board of directors and new Executive Director, Charvez Russell, FAA’s former fifth-grade teacher. A native of Mississippi, Mr. Russell brings both teaching and business experience to his leadership role. He began his career in business as part of the leadership team of the Minneapolis/St. Paul airport location of Avis Budget group. During his 8 ½ years there the group experienced improvements in revenue, operational efficiencies, and performance. He felt called to return to the classroom and joined FAA as a teacher. Today he is seeking his doctorate degree in Organizational Leadership.

Congratulations to the board of directors and staff of Friendship Academy of the Arts. You are a model of the original chartering vision—a small, innovative school, passionately committed to your mission, producing results that eliminate (not just reduce) the “achievement gap.” Job well done!