There’s a contentious debate about charter schools in America these days, but many people might not know the story of how the first-ever charter school got off the ground.
When it opened its doors in 1992, St. Paul, Minnesota’s City Academy Charter School was groundbreaking, the first school of its kind in the country.
The school started by recruiting primarily low-income students — many of whom had left other, more traditional schools. More than 20 years later, City Academy has an exceptionally low dropout rate but still sees a lot of older students who take more than four years to graduate.
The school also has low proficiency in maths and science.
Founded by educators Milo Cutter, Barron Chapman, and Terry Kraabel, City Academy was “initially designed for students who have dropped out of school and whose homes were wracked by poverty or substance abuse,” according to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.
To fill its first class, a 1994 report compiled by the Minnesota House of Representatives reveals, City Academy staff members recruited students from the streets of St. Paul in addition to getting referrals from the city’s school district. That year, 25% of the charter school’s students were homeless.
The New York Times described City Academy’s enrollment for its first class, for the 1992-1993 academic year, as “about 35 students who have a history of truancy or other disciplinary problems.”
St. Paul newspaper The Star Tribune elaborated on the school’s mission in a 1992 article:
A program to rescue hardened kids from the brink of drug abuse, jail or homelessness may become St. Paul’s first foray into the educational laboratory called charter schools. The City Academy would work with up to 30 students, ages 13 to 19, who have dropped out of school. Those from homes racked by poverty or substance abuse, those who have made their homes behind fences and bars or those who have no home at all would get another chance to learn.
An article months later in the newspaper said that City Academy would look to enroll students “who have had unsuccessful experiences at traditional and alternative schools.”
The school emphasises individualized learning. Two themes stressed in the school are “respect” and “life lessons.” The school is geared to the students’ life and educational needs. Each student agrees to a contract which specifies what will be learned and by when. Such a contract may include obtaining a driver’s licence or providing day care to community children in addition to more traditional educational objectives.
In a 2012 interview, Cutter told NPR the founders “saw an opportunity to open a school for kids who were lost or forgotten.”
“They were older students, and as most people are aware, that’s not a high-priority group,” Cutter said.
For the 2013-2014 academic year, according to the school’s annual report, City Academy was home to 180 students. About 66% of the students are male, and there’s a clear racial majority. Asian students make up 65% of the student body.
The vast majority of the students are also from low-income backgrounds. 87% of City Academy’s 180 students that year attended for free.
The student body is also older than that of the typical high school. According to the annual report, more than 75% of City Academy students are seniors or “super seniors” — students who have passed their traditional graduation year.
Perhaps most interestingly, City Academy has an extremely low attrition rate. That’s remarkable since the charter school specifically targets students who have fallen through the cracks of the education system.
“Most students at our school have experienced failure in other educational settings, and made the choice to complete their studies with us,” according to the annual report.
For the 2013-2014 academic year, City Academy had a 0% dropout rate (though that doesn’t mean every student graduated in four years).
“Such a low rate is common from year to year at City Academy. Because we are a high school, and because the great majority of our students are behind academically by the time they come to us, they are motivated to complete their studies,” the annual report stated.
Looking forward a year, the Minnesota Department of Education has some great stats about City Academy’s most recent academic term. Below, check out the charter school’s four-year graduation rate for the past five years, which hit 71% — 43 students — in 2014:
Overall, the city had a four-year graduation rate of 75.6% in 2014.
However, you can see that City Academy’s subject proficiency is still quite low. In the past five years, City Academy has almost never had more than 10% of their students demonstrate proficiency in either maths or science:
Because of the nature of the charter school, City Academy changes its curriculum every term.
“The majority of our students come to us performing below grade level on standardised tests and with a deficit in credits of two or more years,” according to the annual report. “Because of the wide differences in the academic experiences among our students curriculum is adjusted each session to meet the graduation requirements and academic needs of the currently enrolled students.”
City Academy has still stuck to its original mission, although it has increased in size to more than 100 students. As of 2012, many of the students still struggled.
“Almost all are low-income, and many have repeatedly failed Minnesota’s basic skills test,” NPR reported in 2012. “Some have been incarcerated.”
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