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Hiawatha Academies proceeds with its five-school strategy

Posted on 24 February 2016 by calvin

Hiawatha Collegiate High School registered 104 9th-grade students in its first year; opened new building in January

By JAN WILLMS

Hiawatha Academies new high schoolPreparing its students for college is a primary goal of Hiawatha Academies, a network of tuition-free public schools in Minneapolis.

Photo right: The Hiawatha Collegiate High School is in a new building at 4640 17th Ave. It is the newest school in the Hiawatha Academies network. (Photo submitted)

From its humble beginnings on the first floor of St. Joan of Arc Church, (4537 3rd Ave. S.), with a group of children in kindergarten and 1st grade, Hiawatha Academies has grown over the years.
“A diverse group of community leaders wanted a college preparatory school for scholars and their families,” said Sean Elder, the chief operating officer of Hiawatha Academies.

“We have added a grade each year, and in February 2012 we reached our capacity at our first school, Hiawatha Leadership Academy-Morris Park, grades K-4, at 3810 E. 56th St.,” Elder explained. “That same year we decided to adopt a five-school strategic vision for our network of schools,”

Kylah (2)Photo left: Kylah Bobo, a scholar at Hiawatha Collegiate High School. Bobo has been attending Hiawatha Academies since she was in first grade. (Photo submitted)

Besides the Morris Park School, there is currently: another elementary, Hiawatha Leadership Academy-Northrop, at 1611 E. 46th St.; Hiawatha College Prep (3800 Pleasant Ave.), a grades 5-8 middle school; and the newest school, Hiawatha Collegiate High School in a new building at 4640 17th Ave. S. Another middle school will soon join the Hiawatha Academies network.

Elder said the Northrop Elementary was put in a building that was remodeled and renovated with a new addition put on. “It was a great development for us to work with the neighborhood and the community with a building that had been sitting vacant for years. We brought it back to life.”

The high school, which this first year has 104 9th-grade students, will add grade 10 next year. The building offers 22 classrooms, and includes a gymnasium, science labs, and a media lab, But the high school location is temporary. “We are currently in a site search for a place in South Minneapolis for our high school to relocate in 2018-19,” Elder said. The plan is to move the middle school into the new building at the 17th Ave. location.

“We have built a middle school building,” Elder said. “This also allows us to fulfill our strategic plan to have a school ready, so when students graduate from 4th grade, they can move into this building for their middle school.”

Elder said that as the Hiawatha Academies grew, so did the parents’ desire to accelerate the creation of a high school. “Planning for growth has allowed us to staff for growth and connect with our families,” he said.

“Every growing organization goes through challenges, and it’s important to learn from them,” Elder added. “We have gotten better at looking further in advance, especially in adopting our five-school strategic plan.” He said that even when beginning talks about opening a high school, Hiawatha Academies proponents learned the importance of engaging families and community members. “We held focus groups with our families, and had transparency,” he noted. He said that when it became clear that parents wanted the high school to open this year, planners went back to the drawing board to see how they could make that happen.

“We are excited that, both from a fiscally responsible and programmatically responsible standpoint, we were able to provide this school,” he said. He added that exploration for offering 9th-grade academics began in 2013. The doors opened last fall, and the new school building opened its doors in January 2016.

The academic programs offered by Hiawatha Academies have been recognized as an exemplary model in closing the achievement gap in Minnesota. “The achievement gap is a big challenge that has no silver bullet, or one secret, to end it,” Elder said. “But there are a lot of elements about our schools that we believe are providing opportunities for our scholars to succeed.”

Elder explained that the school programs focus on academics as well as developing strong character. He said the emphasis is on developing character and leadership skills that serve the common good.

“We have a longer school day and a longer school year,” he stated. “We are also a very data-driven organization. We measure how we are doing towards reaching our goals. And we are very transparent. When you measure what you are doing, great people react.”

“We know that excellent teaching is a central part of the experience for our scholars, so we spend a lot of time on developing our people. Our model provides that our principals have a lot of professional development for our teachers so that they can get coaching and feedback.”

The classroom sizes are approximately 26 students per room.

Elder said that families and scholars, the preferred term used for students, are engaged in college exploration even at the elementary level.

When students reach the 9th grade, they take a required class called Early College Seminar. “They have the opportunity to explore and learn about the value of a college degree, the types of colleges that are out there, the college admissions process and what it will take for them in high school to develop skills and experiences that will propel them towards success in college.”

Hiawatha AcademiesPhoto left: Sean Elder (left), the chief operating officer of Hiawatha Academies, and Ambar Hanson, senior director of community engagement for Hiawatha Academies. (Photo by Jan Willms)

He said that when the students reach their junior year, they will take a required Senior College Seminar. “That will be when they do the hard work of the college application process,” Elde noted.

“We pride ourselves on designing an academic program that goes above just graduation, but is truly college preparatory,” he said.

Elder said the biggest challenge for the Academies is keeping a constant eye on staying committed to its mission, its scholars, and families while dealing with all the other everyday challenges that come along.

According to Elder, working in a school can be an incredibly rewarding experience. “Just ask any of our staff,” he said. “And the most rewarding part is talking to the scholars and their families and seeing the opportunities for them along the pathways they take. Seeing our scholars active and taking hold of their future and their destiny. They are the ones who will succeed in their own lives. It is our opportunity and job to see that torch is lit.”

He added that Hiawatha Academies is grateful for the support and engagement it has experienced opening the new high school and being a relatively new neighbor in the area. “We’ve had a great experience working with the neighborhood association and locally, and we hope that continues for many, many years.”

Ambar Hanson, senior director of community engagement for Hiawatha Academies, added that the students have service learning every year that allows them to volunteer for things like the Monarch Festival, or at other local events in the area. “It’s a way to give back and connect with the community,” she said.

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