Sharing stories of successful schools

Joe Nathan

Center for School Change

In this season of sharing, it’s time to do a much better job of learning from some of Minnesota’s most effective district and charter public schools.

Whether named by the U.S. or Minnesota departments of education or a state association, educators have developed terrific ideas that can help more students succeed.

One place to begin is the U.S. Department of Education’s Blue Ribbon Schools program. These schools are chosen based on students’ high performance, closing achievement gaps, or both, and a recommendation from Minnesota Commissioner of Education Brenda Cassellius. In September, the department named five Minnesota schools as Blue Ribbon Schools.

Unfortunately, principals at these schools say no college or university has asked to share their strategies with prospective teachers or administrators.

But it’s not just this lack of interest that concerns me. We don’t have an efficient system of learning from places like Minnesota’s 2016 Blue Ribbon Schools:

–Birchview Elementary School in Plymouth, part of the Wayzata School District.

–DaVinci School of Arts and Science, a charter public school in Blaine.

–Friendship Academy of the Arts, a charter public school in Minneapolis.

–Parker Elementary School, in the Elk River Area School District.

–St. Anthony Village High School, of the St. Anthony-New Brighton School District.

More information about the Blue Ribbon Schools program is here:

Foundations, the state Legislature and Congress can help promote more learning from educators and students in these outstanding schools. Over the last year, I’ve seen examples of how information sharing could work.

Principals at these Blue Ribbon schools told me they would gladly share information.


Asked if she would be willing to share ideas, Debra Lach, executive director at DaVinci Academy, explained that she would be “happy to do so.”


Scott Lempka, Parker’s principal, wrote, “I would be happy to share what Parker is doing if it would be useful to other schools or educators.”


Sam Fredrickson, principal at Birchview, told me “it would be an honor” to share ideas. “I think we are doing some great, innovative work that may work for others.”

Here are three examples of how this could work.

First, Congress, the Legislature or foundations could give money to the Minnesota Department of Education to promote sharing. MDE currently uses some of its federal charter school funds to identify outstanding charters and then gives them a small grant to produce materials other schools can use. Face to Face Academy in St. Paul won one of those awards. Darius Husain, the school’s program director explained that with $4,000 from MDE, Face to Face produced a YouTube video about the wilderness experiences that are offered eight times a year. The school found that these experiences help increase student attendance, achievement and graduation rates. Face to Face has detailed information about the wilderness experiences and hosted an event that more than 200 people attended to learn more. Information is available here:

Second, foundations could learn from the Labrador Foundation and Education Evolving, which recently gave a grant to the Minnesota Association of Charter Schools to honor innovations in Minnesota charters. Each of these schools received $1,000. Profiles are being written about each of the award-winning schools. They’re found here:

Yinghua Academy, a Chinese immersion charter school in Minneapolis, was named a Blue Ribbon School by U.S. Department of Education in 2015 and won an innovation grant this year. Sue Berg, executive director of Yinghua, told me that the school received a flag and good publicity from the Blue Ribbon Award – but no money, unlike the $1,000 it received from its innovation award.

Finally, funders could pay for visits to outstanding schools. Earlier this year, I visited Blue Ribbon-winner Friendship Academy for an event the school calls its Wax Museum: Elementary students dress up like a famous person they have read and written about and share a brief speech about that person. Hundreds of family members came to the school that afternoon to enjoy and applaud youngsters’ outstanding performances.

Modest funding could support visits, internet materials and webinars with outstanding district and charter public schools. Great ideas can spread, helping many more students.

Joe Nathan, formerly a Minnesota public school teacher, administrator and PTA president, is director of the Center for School Change. Reactions are welcome at [email protected]