Innovations in Education: Successful Charter Schools
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Community of Peace Academy

Location St. Paul, Minn
Year First Chartered and Authorizer 1995
Local district
Grades K-12
Enrollment 546
English Learners 75%
Subsidized Meals 80%
Special Needs 10%
Per Pupil Spending $10,355

In a community where gangs actively recruit adolescents into their ranks and teenagers sometimes marry at age 14, according to Hmong custom, the Community of Peace Academy (CPA) has created a school program and family-style community that empower students to make thoughtful, non-violent life choices. The school's mission, to create a peaceful environment in which each person is treated with unconditional positive regard and acceptance, is heard in teachers' conversations about curriculum, seen in student-fashioned hallway murals, and experienced through the school's Peace Builder awards. "Community of Peace works," says one parent, "because the teachers create a peaceful environment where the children feel secure and comfortable to learn. The teachers really care about the children." Their focus on educating "the whole person, mind, body and will for peace, justice, freedom, compassion, wholeness and fullness of life," guides every aspect of the school, from hiring and mentoring new teachers to disciplining students for misbehavior, from maintaining small class size to relationship building.

Located on the east side of St. Paul, Minn., Community of Peace Academy serves a high proportion of low-income and English language learners. With 546 students in grades K-12, 70 percent are Hmong and 20 percent are African American. The remaining 10 percent include Hispanic, Eritrean, white, Vietnamese, and American Indian students. The majority do not speak English at home. The K-12 curriculum focuses on four core academic areas: reading/language arts, mathematics, science, and social studies. In addition, peace and ethics instruction are infused at every grade level.

Community of Peace Academy was founded in 1995. It began as an elementary school and added a grade a year. As it became clear that the large local high schools would not meet the individual needs of the school's students, the Community of Peace Academy decided to extend its K-8 program. The staff has grown from under 20 members when the school opened to over 80 in the fall of 2003. The still-developing high school now enables families to enroll all of their children at one school, where students will not fall through the cracks.

Program and Operations

The mission shapes the entire program structure. The most striking and innovative feature, represented in the school's name, is its focus on fostering a non-violent lifestyle. Peace building and character education are woven into every facet of the school. Each teacher receives a two-week Responsive Classroom training so that all are using the same system for guiding student behavior and modeling positive discipline. This consistency from one classroom to the next is remarkable. Students know exactly what is expected of their behavior and the result is a peaceful, intentional tone in the classroom, which allows every student to engage in learning. The K-8 PeaceBuilder Program, Project Wisdom for grades 7-12, and the Ethics and Advisory elective in the high school are all integral parts of the school's peace and ethics program. It becomes part of the way teachers take time to teach the whole child, not narrowly focusing on academics. In a sixth-grade classroom, for example, a teacher identified a need to help her students reflect on what it feels like to be teased and why they tease others. By the end of this morning circle, students shared personal feelings and set goals for the week, including a commitment not to tease others. At this age, the focus is preventative, on teaching students how to develop the skills to create a safe classroom environment.

"The teachers create a peaceful environment where the children feel secure and comfortable to learn."

To work with older students, the Hmong Gang Strike Force coaches the high school faculty on signs that indicate gang involvement. Through this partnership, the school is also trying to empower parents to take back children from the gangs, which have a strong presence in the community.

Real life issues are seized on as ways to build a nonviolent perspective. Last year, for example, two high school students broke out into a fight in front of a group of first-graders at breakfast. These were two new students with violent backgrounds who had an unresolved conflict from the weekend. At Community of Peace, consequences are functional and constructive rather than punitive. So as a result of their fight, the high school students were asked to develop a presentation for the first-graders, explaining their personal rejections about the use of violence and what they could have done differently. They talked about learning how to solve problems without striking out. It proved to be a powerful learning lesson for the teenagers, and teachers reported that it had a huge impact on one of the boys in particular. Teachers consider the school as a family and help each other to work through issues that arise, teaching students to learn from their mistakes and supporting them in the process.

In a practice called "looping," teachers work with the same students for two years in a row. In the elementary school, each teacher is supported by an ESL specialist, a classroom aide, and a shared special education teacher. For grades seven and eight, teachers team by math and science and by language arts and social studies; each teacher teaches the two subjects to the same two groups of 24 students for a two-year cycle. This looping, whether at the elementary grades or in junior high school, provides continuity and allows teachers to develop strong connections with students and families. Additionally, teachers feel that when they identify a critical student need, there is support to make things happen quickly. As one teacher comments, " I see change happen here when we need it."

Continuous Learning

Ongoing learning is evident on every level, from the classroom to professional development. At the outset, the school hired an outside evaluator to help them stay focused on their mission and to strategize ongoing needs. The whole evaluation and accountability process is used to steadily improve teaching and learning. The board members, teaching and support staff, and administrators use student performance evaluation measures to focus on continuous improvement. Data collected each spring are analyzed by the evaluator consultant, then presented to the staff of the school. Working groups then review the data and work during the school year and summer to develop strategies that will help students to meet the desired outcomes of the plan. For example, analysis of standardized testing data revealed the need to develop a stronger reading program. So the school adopted Accelerated Reading K-12, created a reading period every day for every student, and lowered K-1 class size to 16 students. Through an America Reads grant, they collaborated with the University of St. Thomas to provide an after-school Reading Buddies program for second- and third-graders, pairing these elementary students with university students for reading support. The school also hired a full-time instructional facilitator to provide ongoing professional development. The reading program is now considered very strong. "My daughter would never pick up a book," reports one parent, "and now I can't stop her from reading and her grades have gone up." She attributes this to the motivating schoolwide focus on reading.

The evaluation process also helped teachers see the need for a more fully developed ESL program, a model that was more inclusive, embedded, and tightly monitored. It is now one of the school's most innovative elements. Based on the belief that every CPA teacher must be an ESL teacher, the school is partnering with Hamline University, which provides in-service workshops, teacher observations, and conferencing with teams to provide feedback on the ESL content and learning objectives. Every two grades are matched with an ESL teacher who provides support in the classroom inclusion model and plans regularly with the classroom teachers. In the high school, two ESL teachers provide classroom support as well as teaching two ESL electives, one a tutorial for students who need additional help with their academic classes and a second ESL class for students who continue to struggle with English language acquisition.

Now every ESL student has an Individual Learning Plan. Looking at a student's standardized testing data, grades, and school record, the ESL teacher creates two to three learning goals for each student, indicating the level of intervention needed and areas for teacher focus. Every Monday, classroom teachers and ESL teachers plan strategies for their English learners, such as using more realia, giving students more time to respond to a question, and allowing students who are shy about participating more time to share ideas in classroom discussions.

Parents and Partners

Embracing the belief that parents are the first educators of their children, the school works very hard to reach out to the families of their students and keep lines of communication open and clear. All families are asked to sign a Home/School Compact and a Mentor Contract, committing themselves to full participation in the education of their child's mind, body, and will within an educational community fully committed to peace and non-violence. Teachers start off the year visiting students' homes, connecting with families and developing a deeper understanding of and empathy for each child. This paves the way for ongoing communication throughout the school year, sharing goals and expectations. A full-time parent liaison fluent in Hmong arranges interpreters for home visits, meetings, and conferences and translates all school information, such as the Family Handbook and the monthly parent newsletter, into the Hmong language. Transportation and child care are provided for parents so they may attend school meetings, conferences, and events.

The school hired an outside evaluator to help them stay focused on their mission and to strategize ongoing needs.

In addition to regular parent-teacher conferences, parent nights are held every other month throughout the school year. Students in grades K-6 write a weekly letter home to update parents on their grades, homework, and school learning.

Each year parents are invited to evaluate the school and its programs through focus groups and surveys. It was the parents' idea to have the students wear simple uniforms-khaki pants and polo shirts-as a way to remove barriers among students. Over nine years, teachers and parents have worked closely together to develop the school program. On the school's board of directors, parents hold five of the 11 voting memberships and teachers hold the other six.

Governance and Accountability

In addition to the five parents and six teachers on the school's board of directors, four non-voting members attend the board's monthly meetings: the school's executive director and principal, the business accountant and adviser, the high school assistant principal, and the elementary school assistant principal. The board is responsible for implementing and overseeing the school's mission, budget, and policy. Every other year the board engages in strategic planning.

Teachers start off the year visiting students' homes, connecting with families, and developing a deeper understanding of and empathy for each child.

Community of Peace Academy is chartered through the local public school district of St. Paul, Minn. Granted for three years at a time, the charter has been renewed three times, based on the school's successful focus on its mission and student academic growth. CPA is accountable not only to the charter authorizer but also to the parents and students it serves. Accountability is also directly tied to teacher evaluation. This high level of accountability, says founding principal Karen Rusthoven, is at the heart of the school's success.

Financially, the school is sound, although staff are paid about 10 percent less than their district counterparts. In 1998, through a nonprofit building company, the Community of Peace Academy bought the building it was renting and built an addition to better serve the K-8 program. In 2002, by raising a community bond, the school further renovated the building and constructed a new high school. In addition to per pupil funding from the St. Paul district, the school uses a combination of other funding sources to provide special programs for students and teachers. For example, school improvement funds support the instructional facilitator, who provides ongoing professional development support for teachers. Title III funding supports an ESL partnership with Hamline University. First-grade-preparedness funds provide the kindergarten with a full-day program, and class-size-reduction funds allow a maximum of 16 students in kindergarten and grade 1 classes.

In 2003, the Character Education Partnership in Washington, D.C., presented Community of Peace Academy with the National School of Character Award, recognizing the school as one of 10 schools nationwide for "exemplary work to encourage the ethical, social, and academic development of its students through character education." The school is also recognized by World Citizens Incorporated as an international peace school.

Academically, the school is doing well by its low-income students. For example, 73 percent of the students in grade 8 passed the 2003 Minnesota Basic Skills test in math, compared with 72 percent statewide. Math improvement among students in grades 5-8 ranked the school among the top 20 in Minnesota. In reading, with a majority of students whose home language is not English, 65 percent passed the assessment.

Finally, as demonstrated by the school's waiting list, parents are actively choosing Community of Peace Academy, drawn to the small size, the K-12 program, the cultural acceptance, and the focus on peace and non-violence.

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Last Modified: 06/23/2009