Be the Change: Visiting Hiawatha Leadership Academy

image from

image from

Lined up beside a staircase made of cream-colored brick, a dozen children wore shirts of blue, green and maroon. “I seek to understand,” “I am the change,” and “I’m 100% HEART” printed in crisp white font across their backs. On the front left shoulder, the logo read: Hiawatha Leadership Academies.

Hushed by a smartly dressed young woman standing before them, the children folded their arms behind their backs. “What is it going to sound like when we go into the classroom for guided reading?” she asked, arranging the children neatly. “What is it going to look like?” After a few moments of silence, the teacher began to usher her little herd up the steps. “Keep thinking about what your next activity is going to look like!” she called out encouragingly.

As the line of students to snaked its way closer to a literacy room destination, our group of 9 SFER St. Olaf students was left standing in the hallway of Hiawatha Leadership Academy with darting eyes. Shepherded by our bubbly tour guide across tiled squares, we took in inspiring banners, family portraits, and countless university emblems. The Mission statement of the school was everywhere–empower students with knowledge, character, and leadership in preparation for college graduation (the expectation) and meaningful citizenship (the goal.) Climb the Mountain to College! was the never-ending chant.

Peeking into the morning meetings of classrooms on the first floor filled with children from K-2nd grade, we saw that cross-legged interaction on multi-colored rugs was the norm. Outside one classroom door, a boy stood quietly. He was participating in a morning warm-up game–waiting to be called back to fulfill his important role.When we asked him what he was doing, he whispered.

Down the hall, students listened to their bright-eyed teacher tell them about the schedule for the day. Outside of each classroom a university flag waved–marking the identity of each classroom. The St. Olaf “Oles” could be found adjacent to the Florida “Gators” and a few steps away from the Boston University “Terriers.” Abby shared that on some days the children sing the “fight songs” of their classroom colleges.  7 years old and filled with college spirit.

Taking in a landscape of watercolor artwork, multi-lingual signage, and a slew of bulletin boards related to setting goals, our group was amazed at the normalcy of observation. At Hiawatha, it is clear that the staff and children have grown accustomed to being watched. Lesson plans and objectives for each day can be found posted on classroom doors and written on whiteboards. Every single day the principal can be found observing unannounced in any room. Feedback is constant and well-utilized, and conversations about improvement happen weekly. As visitors, we carried folders equipped with observation forms, schedules for each grade level, and a copy of the school’s mission statement. Everything about the operation of this building was transparent– with students expected to be positive representations of their school and its work at every moment.

When we stepped into a gymnasium lit by towering frosted glass windows and filled with the smell of squeaky sneakers and basketball leather, heads hardly turned. A class of 2nd grade students was seated quietly in a grid laid in masking tape on the hardwood. Their attention was focused on the peers standing before them–actors from various grade levels navigating a makeshift stage. These students were preparing for their evening performance of The Festival of Lights, and this was a dress rehearsal. As the cast read from stapled scripts, manipulated hand-painted props, and  told the Ukrainian folk tale of the “white mitten,” the second grade audience was more than attentive. The incessant hush sounds made by the teachers in the back row  (remembered from my own elementary days,) were not necessary. The clapping for the final bow was enthusiastic and polite. These kids were masters of self-control.

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image from

Before scattering in groups of three to observe in separate classrooms, our SFER Members were treated to a short history of Hiawatha Leadership Academy–a charter school that fits the bill of the famous “KIPPster” style of inspiration and vision.

As Minnesota’s first network of college prep urban charter schools, Hiawatha Academies (founded in 2007) includes an elementary school and a middle school. Similar to many growing charter models, Hiawatha serves 450 students in grades K-5 and adds a grade each year to continue serving these students as they move from K-12. In the next stages of development, Hiawatha Academies hope to expand to a total of 5 schools–2 elementary, 2 middle, and one high school. Closely aligned with Teach for America (TFA,) the school’s staff includes many TFA alumni (including its Director.) Though the carefully developed model is being replicated to fill 5 schools, leaders of the Academies recognize that keeping things small is key to charter school success. Hiawatha Academies will cease expansion after the five school goal is achieved–content with the impact that comes with serving approximately 5% of Minneapolis students.

In their theory and philosophy, Hiawatha Academies claim simple “guiding principles.” However, the ramifications and details of these statements are undeniably complex. The focus, Hiawatha claims, is hard work. As seen on their website and in promotional material, the 5 Hiawatha Academy Guiding Principles are listed:

Our Approach

1) High Expectations

Our motto, “Scholars Today. Leaders Tomorrow,” embodies our high aspirations for the academic and character development of our students-whom we call scholars. We aim to prepare all of our scholars for college, for leadership, and for reaching their full potential as individuals.

2) More Time

Our much longer school days and school years provide our scholars 40% more learning time than a traditional public school provides. This extra time will result not only in closing the achievement gap, but also in preparing all of our scholars for college-level classes their junior and senior years of high school.

3) People Matter

The quality and commitment of our teachers and other staff are what makes the greatest difference in the lives of our scholars. We want to make our school a place where great teachers want to teach. We strive to create a collegial, professional and stimulating work environment where everyone has sufficient support, a real voice, and the tools they need to be successful.

4) Results Count

The performance of our scholars on standardized tests and other objective academic measures is essential in assessing their readiness for college and leadership. In addition to standardized tests, the Academy uses six-week interim benchmark exams and portfolio project-based work.

5) Building Leaders

We believe in the civic leadership and character potential of all children. All children should have access to a college education and the chance to provide leadership for the common good.

Beyond Guiding Principles, Hiawatha Academies also adopt a clear set of school values affectionately called H.E.A.R.T. (Honor, Excellence, Always Try Again, Responsibility, and Team.) Students and parents sign on with these values from the beginning of a child’s educational experience, and a clear culture of goal setting and character development is established.

By 3rd grade, many of these kids can tell you where they want to go to college, what they want to major in, and what they want to do post-grad. With teachers on call until 8:30 PM, parents invested in a clear mission, and students equipped with a tool belt of skills to serve them in both academic and career settings, Hiawatha’s heavily broadcast formula for success feels watertight. Children living in low income and high risk communities are given a chance to be caught before they fall through the cracks. Creativity and exploratory play have free rein in music, dance, and art classes, while classrooms are a highly structured environment of clear and high expectations.  90 minutes/ day are spent on literacy skill development at the elementary level, and data on student progress is gathered daily. The teachers are young, bright, and invested. The staff includes multiple skilled translators for Spanish speaking parents, and the elementary school has programs for Spanish education with branches for native English speakers and native Spanish speakers. With several classrooms named after countries, the school has the feel of a miniature global community.

In first impressions and eye-catching pamphlets, this school is a dream. There’s no doubt that the public lotteries scheduled for the coming year will have a large applicant pool (and for good reason.) And yet, despite the uplifting flood of college optimism and energy, I found myself batting at concerns in the back of my mind. After a 30 minute visit to a Kindergarten classroom, the list of questions grew.

A saying made famous by author Robert Fulghum

A saying made famous by author Robert Fulghum

Entering the “Taiwan” kindergarten classroom, an early emphasis on self-control was immediately clear. Split up into two groups on opposite sides of a sprawling room, about 2 dozen 5-year olds were hard at work learning about beginning word sounds. In one corner, students hunched over whiteboards on the floor–writing the letter T in both upper and lowercase, and then drawing a word that begins with the letter T (Tiger was by far the most popular choice.) Meanwhile, another group sat in rows before a giant pad of paper, watching as a 20-something teacher with a Starbucks iced drink in her hand gestured emphatically at words with the first letter mysteriously missing. “I was so sleepy this morning that I forgot to fill in the beginning sounds for these words! Can you help me fill in the blanks?” Nodding happily, the kids craned their necks to get a better look at the _ouse, _ed, and  _illow (written beside magic marker pictures.) “I’m so silly! I meant to write house, but I only wrote ouse! Can you find what makes the h-h-h sound?”

Eyes darting to a bank of letters at the bottom of the page, tiny students raised their hands. When a child seemed restless, the teacher directed him or her to “take a break”–sending them scurrying to a neon green carpet square to sit in cross-legged isolation until control had been regained. Every few minutes, positive reinforcement was released “I love how you are practicing self control!” “I love how these friends in the front row are listening and raising their hands quietly!”

When a handful of students giggled at the hilarity of the incomplete word “illow,” their teacher was quick to call attention to classroom norms and expectations. “Friends, you know that we teachers like to be silly with you sometimes and have fun learning. It’s okay to laugh sometimes, but we need to get our self control back fast!” The children had been laughing for all of three seconds. I found myself wondering; “isn’t school supposed to be fun?” Though I understood that this teacher was working to prevent the possibility of the entire group losing focus on the lesson, (and introducing self control skills that would lead to important time management and self regulation in middle school and high school,)  I couldn’t help but feel like the environment was a bit militaristic. Laugh for three seconds. Cease. Re-focus.

When an iPhone alarm timer placed on a nearby desk went off, it was time for the two groups to switch “stations.” The two young teachers stood across from each other with their groups huddled around them. None of the children moved. After two kids were selected to demonstrate what it looks like to switch stations safely and efficiently, the rest of the group was allowed to follow in their paths. The students walked in lines around the desks clustered in the middle of the room. Any student who deviated from the designated path, broke into a run, or flung his body onto the carpet a little too crazily, was asked to return to the starting position and try again. A bell was rung, and the students had to the count of “3,2,1” to collect themselves. After a total of 30 seconds (including a brief episode where one student who had been asked to “take a break” more than once was pulled aside,) all were seated quietly and working diligently at their stations.

In classrooms with children from higher grade levels, SFER St. Olaf members reported a similar emphasis on stations and group work. Experienced with the expectations of stations from earlier years, the children moved seamlessly from project to project–impressively able to focus despite a high noise and activity level. The ability to transition and compartmentalize is developed throughout elementary school at Hiawatha–leading to more autonomy at the secondary level. Though the SFER members visiting these classrooms found the environment distracting, the class worked like clockwork. As occurred in the kindergarten classroom, classroom management was preventative and prompt.

In our hour spent touring and observing Hiawatha Leadership Academy, I thought a lot about what it would be like to teach in such an organized, collaborative, and  data-driven environment. As a 2013 Teach for America Corps member, I know that this is the sort of school so many TFA alumni seek out after a few years of teaching in original placement regions–a space where TFA affiliation is highly sought and familiar “best practices” emphasized. I imagined the 9 hour school days, school-issued cell phones, constant communication with parents and school leaders, and the “big brother” feel of 1-way mirrored observation rooms that were built in the Hiawatha middle school (Adelante College Prep) last year.

I felt conflicted–simultaneously attracted to the clear structure of an Academy with solid goals and ways to measure progress toward them, and worried about the likelihood of “burnout” and frustration with the level of rigidity. This feeling is becoming more and more familiar as my exploration of varied models in education continues. Each school brings with it different inspirations and challenges. No matter where I find myself in the coming years, compromise and flexibility will be necessary. My philosophy about classroom management, community building, and the day to day work of lesson plans will shift and take shape. Because it’s a strong possibility that I will be in a charter school classroom in Indianapolis by the time August is here, visits to schools like Hiawatha Leadership Academy are invaluable. This is the model that so many think of when the term “charter school” comes up in conversation. Its story is the college-centered “success” tale that so many private donors invest in. To understand  and consider this school’s mission and community is a wonderful place to begin

This entry was posted in SFER Senior Project, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Be the Change: Visiting Hiawatha Leadership Academy

  1. Pingback: An Education of Villages and Artwork | growingupinamerica

  2. Pingback: Senator to Minneapolis Public Schools: Hannd ‘em over | Bright Light Small City

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