Nick Stanger’s success

Joe Nathan

Center for School Change

Leah Stanger has an encouraging story about her son that I wish every politician, parent and educator in the country could hear.

Stanger began writing to me about four years ago to describe changes when her son Nick switched from a large traditional to a small, arts-focused charter public school.

He was failing miserably in a large south suburban high school. Today he is thriving.

Nick loved music and had done well in his district elementary and middle schools, receiving support to help deal with his special needs.

However, when he entered high school, as Leah explained: “Due to his learning problem, he was forced to take a social skills hour, to help with homework. That took his elective.” He was not allowed to take a music course. “High school became read a book, take a test … he got so far behind (like six missing assignments/tests per class and one hour to catch up). He gave up on school, teachers, adults, us.”

She continued: “Meanwhile, he found the ‘I hate life’ crowd at school. … As a parent, we didn’t (know) what to do. (Nick) lost hope, he felt stupid, he told us he can’t learn.”

Fortunately, the Stangers found Main Street School of Performing Arts, a charter school in Hopkins. He began getting up an hour earlier without complaining, Leah noted. Main Street encouraged him to play his guitar. Leah wrote, four years ago, “Now he has hope, and we have hope.”

We’ve stayed in touch. Last week Leah told me that Nick graduated from Main Street and is doing well.

“He took a year to work and save up to go to a music production school in Arizona called Conservatory for Recording Arts and Sciences. … It’s a one-year intense program where he learns sound, video, music production,” she wrote. “Students from there have been employed by large production companies. Many famous performers and (people in) big movies and TV production (went there). It has an 80 percent placement rate.”

She added: “Right now, he is the top student in his class. That never has … happened for him! It’s not a traditional college, but he’s so motivated in his element. His band has been also offered a contract, he’s put out two albums and working on a third.”

Nick told me via email: “I transferred to Main Street in the middle of my sophomore year of high school so I could be in an environment that encourages creativity and artistry, something I felt was seriously lacking at the public high school I had attended previously. As soon as I transferred to MSSPA, I found it much easier to connect with people because, while everyone there comes from a unique and diverse background (students and faculty alike), everyone’s interest lies in the advancement and success of their peers and themselves. There’s no such thing as a perfect school, but I think Main Street does a good job of providing the platform for everyone to grow as artists and be successful if they’re willing to put the work into it.”

Nick’s experience helps explain the dramatic growth of charter public schools in Minnesota and around the country. Some students like the smaller, more personalized environment many charters offer. Others like the specialized programs.

In Elk River, Dan DeBruyn, interim executive director of Spectrum High School, told me that the school recently surveyed families: “Parents told the school that they selected it because it’s a small school with small class sizes and high academic standards.”

In Minnetonka, Jason Ulbrich, executive director of Eagle Ridge Academy, explained: “Parents tell us that they select the school because we are a rigorous college prep program. We focus first on cultivating wisdom and virtue, before academics. Parents also cite our small class size and relationships between faculty and students.”

In Stillwater, St. Croix Preparatory Academy has grown to more than 1,000 students. Jon Gutierrez, co-founder and executive director, reported that the families say they select the school because of “academic rigor/programming and our emphasis on character development (e.g. responsibility, service, compassion, respect, perseverance, etc.).”

Tom Kearney, founder and director of New Heights School, explained that families say they chose the school because of “small class sizes and individualized attention.”

Aaliyah Hodge, a consultant to the Center for School Change, where I work, has analyzed recently released data from the Minnesota Department of Education. Hodge found that since 2006-2007, Minnesota’s charter public school enrollment has more than doubled from 23,689 to 53,960. Meanwhile, district public school enrollment declined from 804,557 to 801,907. Her report is at http://bit.ly/2m1YJZ5.

District schools are good options for many youngsters. The vast majority of Minnesota public school students are enrolled in district public schools.

However, there’s strong growth in charter enrollment. And part of that growth is in Minnesota suburban and rural communities, from Anoka to Yellow Medicine County.

When students like Nick succeed, it’s good for all of us. Instead of being a frustrated dropout, he’s continuing his education as he contributes his energy and music to the world.

Options not only help more students succeed, they also help make our communities better for all of us.

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]