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How to close achievement gap

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Minnesota charter schools seek license to close achievement gap

By Tom Steward | Watchdog Minnesota Bureau

Skye Hoekstra may be doing her part to close one of the nation’s worst minority achievement gaps — on borrowed time.

Her inner city kindergartners at Prodeo Academy charter school in Minneapolis have made so much progress in math and reading, they ranked in the 99 th percentile nationally, midway through the school year.

Yet Minnesota refuses to recognize Hoekstra’s Nevada teaching license and master’s degree as meeting state standards. Unless she goes back to school herself to take an “Intro to Teaching Children to Read” course and other classes required by the Minnesota Board of Teaching, Hoekstra may not be back in the classroom.

“I’m not able to teach past this year,” said Hoekstra, one of two teachers in licensure limbo at Prodeo. “Basically, it’s going back to student teaching, after having four years under my belt already. Plus, it’s also really expensive, and there’s no way for me to take an intro course, at this point in my career, in night school again.”

Hoekstra’s quandary explains why charter schools have so much at stake in a new lawsuit aimed at streamlining the process for licensing out-of-state teachers coming to Minnesota.

“It takes a unique model and then, a unique teacher within that model, to be successful. The best teachers out there is who we have here, and it’s challenging to get them licensed,” said Rick Campion, co-founder and executive director of Prodeo Academy, which is winding up its second academic year.

Minnesota law requires licenses to be issued to out-of-state applicants  with “essentially equivalent” degrees and experience. But several licensed out-of-state teachers have sued the Minnesota Board of Teaching for “consistently refusing to follow Minnesota law” in handling their applications.

“I do believe that a number of schools are paying incredibly close attention to the case, including a number of charter schools,” said Rhyddid Watkins, a Minneapolis attorney who’s representing the teachers pro bono.

Board of Teaching officials agree the licensure issue affects charter schools most, due to recruitment of out-of-state teachers to work with disadvantaged students. Yet state educators continue to resist attempts to revamp the licensing process.

“Everyone is trying to figure out how we can increase the number of teachers of color,” said Erin Doan, executive director of the Minnesota Board of Teaching. ”So to the extent they (charter schools) are looking to find teachers of color from states where there are more teachers of color,

yes, they do rely more on out-of-state licensure.”

It’s no coincidence that half of the 10 classroom teachers at Prodeo, Latin for to advance and go forth, hold licenses in other states. Many of the charter school’s 133 students — called scholars by staff — do not know a number from a letter upon enrollment, while 98 percent qualify for free or reduced lunches.

Prodeo Academy Photo

BACK TO CLASS: Despite classroom results that rank her in the top of her profession, kindergarten teacher Skye Hoekstra was told by the state to take an introductory course on teaching children to read in order to get a Minnesota teaching license.

“We said we need to hit the ground running. We were going to be sure that every scholar, every child who enters this building, is going to get the best education he or she can,” said Campion. “We only hire teachers with experience teaching kids from our demographic. They’re outstanding teachers and (many) are licensed in another state.”

The school plans to phase in a new grade level every year up to eighth grade, placing a premium on hiring diverse educators with inner city classroom experience and proven academic results.

Last year, 93 percent of students met or exceeded grade level expectations.

“It makes all the difference in the world. The difference between a teacher who’s actually done this work at a high-performing charter school serving kids of color and one that has not. That experience makes a huge difference at a new school like Prodeo,” said Daniel Sellers, executive director of MinnCan, an education reform advocacy group.

Yet until something gives, Hoekstra’s teaching future remains uncertain, though her achievement level matches that of her students.

“To achieve the growth that this teacher here has, she’s in the 99 th percentile in the country. She’s among the best teachers in the country and she was told she needs to take an intro course into teaching children how to read, as part of her licensure in Minnesota,” Campion said. “So it needs to be easier for a teacher who is skilled, licensed and experienced to be able to continue teaching here.”

For now, Hoekstra says her kindergarten “scholars” cannot wait to see how their end-of-the-school-year math and reading tests turn out.

“They’re just so excited. We call it a show me what you know, so they get really excited to show everybody how much they’ve learned. They have a lot of pride,” said Hoekstra.

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