The Education Innovator
Volume III
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The Education Innovator
 October 13, 2005 • Number 37
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Minnesota North Star Academy, St. Paul, MN
What's New
Innovations in the News

Minnesota North Star Academy, A Guiding Light for the Community of the Deaf
Picture a fence of interlocking logs—a frieze of triangles outlining a Minnesota frontier field. Then put your hands together, crossing your fingers in front of you. Circle your hands as if stirring a large pot. This is the sign for the word "America"—individuals interlocked and stirred together following the phrase "melting pot"—in American Sign Language (ASL).

Students who communicate using ASL from over 10 districts in Minnesota and Wisconsin have discovered a new charter high school to serve their unique needs. Minnesota North Star Academy opened its doors in 2004 in St. Paul, Minnesota, as a bilingual school. When a school is bilingual, most people think of students speaking another language, such as Spanish or Chinese. However, at Minnesota North Star Academy the language that partners with English is American Sign Language. The school's mission is to prepare students who communicate using ASL and English, primarily those who are deaf, deaf/blind, and hard-of-hearing, to become successful and valued citizens of the world community.

The school's instruction, using both ASL and English, was developed in response to a need from the local community for a secondary program that would continue the services provided by St. Paul's Metro Deaf School (MN), which serves students in pre-kindergarten through eighth grade. The premise behind both the Metro Deaf School and Minnesota North Star Academy is that students who understand concepts in one language, such as ASL, can transfer that knowledge to another language, such as written or spoken English. According to research from San Francisco State University and the University of California, Santa Cruz, students who are deaf with parents who are also deaf achieve higher levels of English proficiency and academic achievement when they are exposed to ASL as compared to their counterparts who are not regularly exposed to or use ASL.

ASL is the fourth most commonly used language in the United States. It includes signs made with the hands and other movements, including facial expressions and use of the body. According to the National Institute of Deafness and Other Communicative Disorders of the National Institutes of Health, "ASL is a language completely separate from has its own rules for grammar, punctuation, and sentence order." It is also expressed differently from English. For example, "English speakers often signal a question by using a particular tone of voice; ASL users do so by raising the eyebrows and widening the eyes."

Currently, North Star serves 23 students, 93 percent of whom have returned after the school's first year. In the next few years, North Star plans to expand, serving 80 to 100 students. In order to work at the school, teachers must be fluent in ASL and licensed in special education. Three full-time and three part-time teachers serve on the faculty, all of whom have a master's degree in their content area. When a student enters North Star, this team of teachers meets with the family and a special education evaluator to review the student's Individualized Education Plan (IEP), in which targeted performance levels are indicated based on the student's particular needs. The IEP is then updated and used to create the student's personalized learning program.

Although much of the instruction at North Star takes place in ASL, the classroom environment is anything but mute or static. Students rapidly sign to one another and use cues such as tapping on desks or flashing classroom lights. English is embedded in instruction throughout the day in written assignments such as journal writing, essays, laboratory reports, and warm-up activities. Nearly one-half of the students attend classes in spoken English as well. According to the school's curriculum coordinator and social studies teacher, Susan Outlaw, the purpose of bilingual instruction at North Star is not to "favor one language over the other," but to ensure that students attain a higher level of skill in using both languages, which ultimately promotes higher levels of literacy development and overall academic success.

Along with classes in English and core subjects such as history, science, and math, which make up many of the 80-minute block periods at the school, students may take courses in sociology, psychology, and computer science. This semester, the school is offering an elective class in Swedish language, culture, and economics where students are introduced to the country's history and learn how to fingerspell in Swedish (different sign languages are used in different countries or areas). The elective was conceived as a result of an exchange program in which North Star is involved with the Manilla School for the Deaf or Manillaskola. Students in the class have been paired with Swedish penpals, who are currently studying English. In January, students will present what they have learned in the course to the entire school, including staff and parents. This presentation will lead into a one-week trip to Sweden later in the spring, in which all North Star students will particpate.

Students' progress is measured in a fashion that is just as diverse as the school's course offerings. Traditional and alternative assessments are used in every class, from interviews with the teachers to projects and experiments, demonstrations, writing samples, and portfolios. In order to graduate, all students must pass the Minnesota Academic Standards by taking the Basic Skills Test in reading and mathematics and the Minnesota Comprehensive Assessments. Currently, each North Star senior is on track to graduation. In its first year, the school made adequate yearly progress.

To ensure that students are aware of their opportunities for postsecondary education, North Star coordinates trips to colleges and universities where students learn about the schools and the services that are available to them, such as interpreters and note-taking support. Students also participate in "transition classes" where teachers describe advocacy skills, postsecondary choices, and life skills. Often college recruiters describe their programs during these classes.

Along with its focus on preparing students for higher education, North Star has a strong service learning component. Last year, for example, students wrote and won a grant for a research project from Student Research for Action, a program of What Kids Can Do!, Inc., sponsored by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. The project examined how restaurants can better serve deaf customers. To complete it, students interviewed local restaurant managers and personnel and collected 116 surveys from deaf and hard-of-hearing people in the community. Using this information, the students produced an instructional CD highlighting ways that restaurants can meet the needs of deaf clientele, which will now be used as a training tool across the country by the TGI Friday's restaurant chain.

North Star is part of a network of five small charter schools that offer specific educational programming to previously under-served populations, such as minority students or students with handicaps, in the Minneapolis/St. Paul area. These "St. Paul Star High Schools" offer curricula that prepare students for college, careers, and participation in their communities.

Together, the Star High Schools represent a varied range of themes. At Augsburg Academy for Health Careers, for example, students pursue a rigorous academic program that prepares them for vocations in health care. At the St. Paul Conservatory for Performing Artists, students study music, theatre, dance, and film production.

Three years ago, the Center for School Change at the University of Minnesota's Hubert H. Humphrey Institute for Public Affairs initiated plans to open the Star High Schools with help from private donors, as well as the Bill and Melinda Gates and Frey Family Foundations. According to Joe Nathan, Director of the Center for School Change, " We wanted the schools to retain independence, while working together to create a collaborative network of shared best practices. Our idea was that each school could realize a specific educational vision while serving a special population of students."

Not often does a school of 23 students make national news or have a national or even an international impact. On September 28, 2005, Minnesota North Star Academy Director Mandy Fredrickson and a student were interviewed on the VoiceAmerica channel radio program, CharterAmerica.

The school was made possible through its sponsor/authorizer Volunteers of America, and through a Charter Schools Program grant to the state of Minnesota from the Office of Innovation and Improvement.

Resources: Note: The featured program is innovative; however, the program is too new to have evidence of effectiveness from a rigorous evaluation.


What's New
From the White House

President George W. Bush signed into law the Assistance for Individuals with Disabilities Affected by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita Act of 2005. This law grants the U.S. Department of Education the authority to permit hurricane-affected Gulf Coast states access to $25.9 million in federal funds for vocational rehabilitation services without the states having to provide matching funds. These services may include education, training, assistive technology, or supports necessary for employment. (Sept. 30)

The White House and several Cabinet agencies will host a conference on October 20 in Milwaukee to help faith-based and other community organizations learn more about the Faith-Based and Community Initiative. The conference is free, but pre-registration by October 14 is required. (Oct. 7)

From the U.S. Department of Education

U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings addressed the 33rd General Conference Plenary Session of UNESCO in Paris. In her remarks, the Secretary emphasized the importance of appreciating cultural diversity and the need for universal education, saying, "Although we come from many different places, we all understand the importance of education. And we all agree that we must work together to achieve the goal of UNESCO's Education for All effort." (Oct. 5)

Grants to 20 new regional and content Comprehensive Centers have been awarded, including one to the Academic Development Institute (ADI) in Lincoln (IL) for the Innovation and Improvement Content Center. ADI has housed two of the OII-funded Parental Information and Resource Centers. Another grant was awarded to Learning Point Associates in Naperville (IL) for the Teacher Quality Content Center. The purpose of the centers is to provide technical assistance to states as they work to help districts and schools (especially those in need of improvement) close achievement gaps in core content areas. (Oct. 5)

The recently released report, Case Studies of Supplemental Services Under the No Child Left Behind Act: Findings from 2003-2004, download files PDF (27KB), examines the implementation of supplemental educational services (SES) in nine districts in six states. The report shows that SES participation in the districts ranged from 7 percent of eligible students to 86 percent; however, even in districts with low participation, many served almost all the students they could, given the 20 percent funding cap. The report also shows that the number of SES providers continues to increase. (Sept. 27)

A literature review on single sex education has been released, which looks at single-sex schooling at the elementary and secondary levels, using criteria adapted from those established by the What Works Clearinghouse. The objective of the review is to document the outcome evidence for or against the efficacy of single-sex education as an alternative form of school organization. (Oct. 4)

The next Education News Parents Can Use television broadcast on October 18, from 8:00-9:00 p.m. Eastern Standard Time, will focus on how to keep children safe before, during, and after school in the face of a natural disaster or other crisis. A Florida school that is serving more than 100 students displaced by Hurricane Katrina will be profiled. (Oct. 7)

From the Office of Innovation and Improvement

A new fact sheet, "Helping Families By Supporting and Expanding School Choice," has been released. The fact sheet includes information on federal funds supporting choice programs under the law, including supplemental educational services, charter schools, magnet schools and voluntary public school choice. It also includes statistics about the numbers of students served by these programs, as well as the amount of money requested in the President's FY 2006 budget. (Oct. 7)


Innovations in the News

Arts Education and Hurricane Katrina
The Alliance for a Media Literate America, an OII Arts Model grantee, has produced lessons and activities on "Bringing Hurricane Katrina into the Classroom" PDF(183KB). This resource document is designed for teachers to help students analyze, understand, and cope with Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath and contains information on "the practice of journalism," editorial decision making," and "looking at language." [More-ALMLA] (Sept. 5)

The Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities (LEH) (an OII-Teaching American History grantee partner) is providing humanities programming to organizations, museums, and other community groups throughout Louisiana, including a historical documents conservation project, which is giving guidance to conservators on the recovery and conservation of historical records and documents. These services are made possible by a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities. Another LEH project, Prime Time Family Reading Time, is one of many projects libraries across the country have undertaken to help displaced families living in shelters. [More-American Library Association] (Sept. 25)

Charter Schools
The Houston school board has leased an old school that was reopened temporarily for students displaced by Hurricane Katrina to the Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP). The KIPP charter school will be staffed by Teach For America teachers who were originally assigned to New Orleans. Enrollment will be open to any student who wants to attend, including students from Louisiana and Mississippi who have been displaced by hurricanes. The school will be called New Orleans West (NOW) College Prep. [More-Houston Chronicle] (Oct. 1)

A study download files PDF, (1MB), released by the Texas Public Policy Foundation (TPPF) reports that elementary and middle school students who have remained in the state's charter schools for several years have achieved significantly higher academic gains in math and reading than their peers in traditional public schools. The authors compared charter and non-charter schools, revealing that a larger percentage of economically disadvantaged students and at-risk students are enrolled in charter schools. The authors also report that the student/teacher ratio tends to be higher in charter schools. [More-TPPF Policy Brief PDF, (276KB)] (Sept. 2005)

Those interested in charter schools are looking to KIPP DC: KEY Academy in Washington, D.C., as the "gold standard." In 2004, its students had the highest Stanford-9 test scores for reading and math for DC public schools. Ninety-seven percent of students scored at least proficient in math, and 70 percent were at least proficient in reading, compared to DC public schools scores of 39 percent in math and 32 percent in reading. Charter schools such as KEY Academy offer parents choices, particularly if the traditional public school a student attends is in need of improvement. [More-infoZine] (Sept. 27)

Supplemental Educational Services
Last year, 1,300 children in Albuquerque (NM) Public Schools received free tutoring or supplemental educational services (SES), provided by No Child Left Behind funding to schools in poverty-stricken neighborhoods. The city has more than 10,000 students who qualify for free tutoring, but it is up to parents to apply. The number of students participating in SES is expected to grow after parent/teacher conferences and as more families and schools benefit from the services. [More-The Albuquerque Tribune] (Sept. 27)

Free tutoring by private organizations will be available to students at Elizabethtown Middle School and the School of Extended Hope in Bladen County, NC. Parents will choose which tutoring group they would like for their children under the supplemental educational services provision of No Child Left Behind. Parents had an opportunity to talk with tutoring providers at a Provider Fair. [More-Bladen Journal] (Oct. 1)

Teacher Quality
Teach For America (TFA) recently celebrated 15 years of its program, which serves as a type of "education Peace Corps" for college graduates who want to teach, particularly in underprivileged schools. Over 17,000 graduates—a 30 percent increase in applicants#8212;applied for 2,200 spots in 22 urban and rural areas across the country this year. Applicants had an average grade point average of 3.5, and most had held leadership positions in college or their communities. [More-USA Today] (Oct. 3)

Calling all mid-career changers in the Lone Star State! The New Teacher Project has coordinated a Texas Teaching Fellows program to bring more teachers into Texas classrooms. The New Teacher Project targets high-need school districts and typically hard-to-staff teaching slots such as math, science, and special education. This year, after two months of training, the Texas Teaching Fellows placed 67 teachers in the Richardson school district, the Carrollton-Farmers Branch, Irving, Grapevine-Colleyville, and Dallas. In the next four years, the program plans to expand in up to 13 more districts. [More-Dallas Morning News] (Oct. 5)


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Last Modified: 08/12/2009