Sunday, September 24, 2006

The Ascension Schools: Retired TCF CEO Bill Cooper sponsors 16 greatly varied charter schools — but all stress facts and discipline.

Inspired by his own boyhood education, retired TCF Chief Executive Bill Cooper has built a nonprofit that sponsors 16 greatly varied charter schools — but all stress facts and discipline.

"You can still teach values. And you should. Schools used to do it, and a lot of kids need it."

Bill Cooper's crusade began with just one school. As chairman and CEO of TCF Financial Corp., Cooper had seen his company and community give more than a million dollars and send scores of volunteer tutors to Ascension School — but the North Minneapolis Catholic elementary still struggled.

So Cooper approached the principal with an idea: focus the curriculum on basics: Reading, math, history. The year before this new curriculum, only one of five Ascension eighth-graders met Minnesota's basic math standards. The year after, only one in five failed. Same students, same teachers. But a different method.

Now, six years later, Cooper leads Friends of Ascension, a nonprofit that sponsors 16 public charter schools in the Twin Cities and St. Cloud. Together, the Friends of Ascension schools teach nearly 3,000 students — collectively, that number is bigger than 80 percent of Minnesota school districts.

The schools differ greatly: They range from a Minneapolis elementary that focuses on Hmong culture to a college-preparatory school in Stillwater. But all are built on a back-to-basics foundation, and all emphasize discipline and character building. They carry the stamp of Cooper's own experience as a Detroit schoolboy who started working when he was 14 and earned his way into an elite — but public — college-prep school.
At Ascension Academy, staff stress self-discipline, respect and responsibility — and students are rewarded for showing those positive traits. For example, every month, teachers and staff drop slips of paper in a bowl with the names of students who have been helpful or aided cleanup around the building — and the 10 students who have been noted the most get to enjoy an elaborate breakfast cooked by principal Dorwatha Woods.
A Chinese immersion school, where students are taught primarily in Mandarin, opened this fall in St. Paul.
St. Croix Preparatory Academy in Stillwater follows a classical model. Students start kindergarten by learning the continents and oceans. They then move on to ancient Mesopotamia the next year and by third grade are learning about ancient Rome. Latin is introduced in fifth grade.
North Minneapolis resident Michelle Tillman sends her 10th-grade son, Early Willis, to Ascension Academy. She likes the school's small size — about 100 students. Teachers call right away when there's a problem.

Cooper and his supporters acknowledge they don't have the data yet to show that what they're doing works in their charter schools. Most Ascension schools have not been open long enough to have useful performance information from state tests. But they believe that, over time, they will see dramatic results.

But Beth Topoluk, director of charter schools for Friends of Ascension, said there are other signs of success. She points to the long waiting lists as proof that there is growing dissatisfaction with traditional public schools.

St. Croix Prep enrolls about 350 students in kindergarten through ninth grade, and there are about 300 kids waiting to get in. Seven Hills Academy in Bloomington opened this fall and had a waiting list last spring. [....snip....] Pioneer Press

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