Twin Cities Academy's a leader of the pack

In a literature class at Twin Cities Academy, the small class of eight students were focused as they discussed Mary Shelley's classic book "Frankenstein." (Patrick Larkin/Review)

Kids in a biology class at Twin Cities Academy were hard at work on a lab about enzymes. The school's small class sizes and rigorous academics have brought it national recognition. (Patrick Larkin/Review)

Small East Side charter school ranks high nationally

The small Twin Cities Academy high school sits tucked away on a quiet block of Dayton's Bluff across from Sacred Heart Catholic Church.

It could easily go unnoticed. And yet, it stands out at a national level -- its high performance statistics bring it to the fore.

The East Side school was recently named the top-ranked high school in Minnesota and 42nd in the country in Newsweek Magazine's top 500 high schools of 2014.

It was also named 17th in the nation for schools "beating the odds" for its success rate among low-income students. Forty-four percent of the school's students are eligible for free and reduced-price lunch programs. And, notably, 19 percent of students qualify for special education services, while five percent are English language learners.

The school, which shares a building with a middle school by the same name, boasts a nearly perfect graduation rate, good test scores, and braggable student-to-teacher ratios.

And while staff emphasize a rigorous curriculum, a strong academic focus and a dress code, they also tout the school's spunk and camaraderie as contributing factors to its success -- things like a Dr. Who Club, a lunchroom where kids can sit at any table without it being a social misstep, and a small-scale environment where every face is familiar.

Started in 2006, Twin Cities Academy is a public charter school that draws students from all over the metro, but 65 percent live in St. Paul's Ward 7, which encompasses East Side neighborhoods including Dayton's Bluff and District 1, as well as the Battle Creek area.

The school's sponsor is the University of St. Thomas -- all charter schools must have a sponsor that agrees to oversee the school and be accountable for its academic and non-academic performance.

With impressive statistics, staff tried to describe what it is that makes the school a success.

Small class sizes

For one, small class sizes can't hurt, said school principal Betsy Lueth -- they're capped at 30 kids, but average about 20. The school has 234 students.

One biology class the Review visited had about a dozen students, while a literature class had only eight.

In the literature class, the kids sat at desks set up in a tight circle with the teacher discussing "Frankenstein," the classic book by Mary Shelley. All their heads were up and all eyes were on the teacher in the sunlit room.

And the school day is about an hour longer than an average school, Lueth says -- students show up at 9:05 a.m. and most stay until 4:15 p.m.

But beyond the basics of small class sizes, it's a more nuanced and detail-oriented approach that defines what the school is all about.

Strong start

School counselor Samantha Dusek points out that every Wednesday starts with a homeroom class, where kids receive college readiness instruction, and learn about things like how to fill out financial aid forms.

The instruction continues with the same group through all four years, and the kids keep the same homeroom advisor through that time as well. There's a 17:1 student-to-advisor ratio, Dusek said.

It's perhaps the focus on college readiness early on that makes 99 percent of the students college-bound by the time they finish at the school.

Lueth adds that the school also has "extension courses" designed to get kids up to speed with whichever subject areas they struggle with.

Students can take these as electives from ninth to 11th grades. In the classes, they get one-on-one attention from teachers and a chance to stay ahead on coursework.

Disciplining early on

Erin Amundson, dean of students, notes that keeping students in line helps keep the school running on a positive note.

The school had no fights on school grounds last year, Lueth notes.

Amundson said the school takes early disciplinary action for minor rule breaking -- if a kid is late to class, not in uniform, or is wearing a hat, they get a warning note. The more warning notes a student gets, the more they're monitored.

Lueth also said the school faculty is all on board with the discipline system so that it's delivered consistently to all students.

When a student comes to the school, their parents also go through something called a covenant meeting, where staff reviews the behavior expectations placed on students in context of the school's academic mission. Getting the parents onboard right away helps, Lueth said.

Promising futures

Twin Cities Academy senior Endegena Desta said he's glad he wound up at the school and not at Central High School, where he started his high school life in the Twin Cities.

He said he appreciates the small size of the school, and the way he's able to get one-on-one attention from teachers. At Central, he felt pretty anonymous.

At the smaller school he gets the feeling the teachers "actually want to help you," he said, and he doesn't feel anonymous walking the hallways.

"Here it's like you kind of care about your peers," he said.

Though just barely into his senior year, Desta already has fairly specific college and career aspirations -- he's hoping to go to the University of Minnesota for pre-med, and then on to study hematology, which focuses on the diagnosis, treatment, prognosis, and prevention of blood diseases.

Another senior named Lucy was lamentably pulled out of her favorite class to talk to a reporter.

She was missing the beginning of a discussion of "Frankenstein" in her AP literature class. The book is the fourth the class has taken on so far this year, and she said she was having no trouble keeping up with all the reading. She started preparing for this fall's class the first day of her summer vacation.

She wants to attend a school for visual arts next year and has her list narrowed down to a couple of schools, including the Minneapolis College of Art and Design.

Hard to let go

Whatever it is that makes the school successful, some of the students can't seem to get enough, said Elizabeth Orme, special education coordinator for the school.

Every year they have seniors come back to school past their last day of class.

And some of them come back years after graduation.

"We can't get them to leave," Orme joked.

Contact Patrick Larkin at 651-748-7816 or at Follow him on Twitter at @ESRPatrickLark.


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