In the Spotlight

News & Features
Meadowlands: Charter School a Survivor
By Catherine Winter
October 7, 1997

Click for audio RealAudio 2.0 14.4

Four years ago, we reported on the opening of one of Minnesota's first charter schools in the tiny, remote town of Meadowlands. People in Meadowlands worked like mad to create a charter school because the district was planning to close their little school. They had to figure out everything from how to schedule buses to how to get grants and donations - because charter schools have to survive on less money than other schools. Four years later, there are 26 charter schools in Minnesota, and the little school in Meadowlands still survives.

There's not much to the town of Meadowlands. It's way out in the woods northwest of Duluth. It has 135 people, a gas station, a scattering of houses, and a school.

SFX: kids

Arlene Reed: Is your math done? Better check. Justin get your free reading book out. You've got things to do. You were reading a great book you were enjoying.

Arlene Reed teaches a combined fourth and fifth grade class at the charter school. Reed has done all kinds of teaching - adult education, elementary school, English as a second language. She came to Meadowlands two years ago, and says she likes it because teachers work in teams - and because she gets to try creative teaching methods:
It's very difficult to get a new concept into a traditional school. Here I can say it's exciting, it works, let's try it. And we can do it.
The charter school is free from some rules that govern other state-supported schools. Teachers decide how to run the school. Teachers make up a majority on the school board, and there's no principal. Reed says she didn't have to fight bureaucracy to introduce an intensive phonics program.
Next word. Gum, gum. (children chorus: gum, gum gum)
Reed's students line up at blackboards and write the words she calls to them, marking them with lines and stars.
(Nora - prompted by teacher): Gum. The x under the u shows it's a vowel.... A star above the u is a guardian angel. One guardian makes the vowel short.
Reed says the students who've been learning phonics are reading better. Reading test scores at the charter school have improved since last year. The fourth and fifth graders seem to like phonics. They're not really tuned into what makes a teaching program different - but they have their own reasons for liking the school:
Cassie: Miss Reed lets us have president, vice president, and secretary. The presidents get to choose about Halloween and all the decisions they have to make on holidays and a whole bunch of stuff.

Robert: They have longer recesses, and if they have kickball games Ill definitely be in 'em.

Cassie(?): I like Mrs. Reed for a teacher. She's the nicest. She's the best teacher I've had. (Winter: And what's so great about Mrs. Reed?) She gives us treats.

I like this year because you get to do math at a higher level, and last year we got to do sixth grade grammar.

It's different because they make it sound a lot easier and it's a lot harder than it seems. (Winter: So it's challenging, but it's easier to learn?) Kids chorus: Yeah.

The charter school draws students from towns near and far. Many make long commutes because their parents think they'll learn more at the charter school. Enrollment has gone as high as 200 students. It's at 140 now. A high school junior named Vicki, who has come down the hall to help Ms. Reed, drives the 20 miles from Cotton every day. She says it's worth it:
You can make an impact on what you're learning. You have an opportunity to go to meetings and say what you think, and the people here will actually listen to you. Like at district schools you have no say unless you tell your teacher and they get to choose whether they'll tell other people or not. But here, you can just go to the meetings and say what you want and everyone will hear you and you have a choice. (Winter: What meetings?) Site-based management team meetings and board meetings.
Minnesota charter school teachers spend a lot of time in meetings, deciding how to serve a hot lunch or whether to teach sex ed. They say they like running the schools, but it's stressful. And most charter school teachers aren't paid well. Charter schools don't have to hire union teachers, and since they don't have access to some of the money other schools get, they often keep salaries low. At Meadowlands, every teacher makes $20,000. And they don't get raises. The teachers who started the charter school four years ago said at the time that they were excited to be part of an innovative project. But ALL of those teachers have since quit. School board member Dick Raich says there's no question some were burned out.
We had one facilitator here who spent 70 hours a week and that was not uncommon - excellent teacher, kept us in line, and you have to admit when you're at the salary we pay and you could do better somewhere else, maybe double, you have to do what's best for yourself.
Raich says teachers were so dedicated to the charter school that some stayed four years despite the low pay. And he says organizers have been able to hire smart, young teachers to replace them, billing the school as a good place to launch a career. It's hard to gauge whether the charter school is a success. Enrollment is up and down. Many students who came from other districts have stopped commuting. But some new students have enrolled. Raich says many of those who left just got tired of the long bus rides. He points out that scores on standardized tests are up sharply from last year at the charter school. Raich says parents and teachers worked together to develop a curriculum that stresses fundamentals, and parents support the school.
We made a commitment that if they would support us, we would do the work. This is our fourth year and from where we started with $30 and a room full of dust, we have books, computers, excellent staff, and we got students and lots of 'em.
When the Meadowlands charter school opened, critics said it wasn't living up to the intentions of the law creating charter schools. The law was meant to encourage innovative teaching - not to keep small rural schools open. Dick Raich acknowledges that parents and teachers originally just wanted to keep the school afloat. But he says it HAS turned into a place where teachers can and do try new ideas, and where kids are learning.