High-poverty Columbia Heights charter school beats the odds to achieve academic excellence
Sunday, September 15, 2013
Global Academy’s college prep classes, a no-nonsense classroom culture
and involved parents have contributed to remarkable results.
Fifth-grade teacher Jessica Chalich was searching for answers. Her
question: “What is the longest multiplication combination called?”
Most of the students in Chalich’s classroom at Global
Academy knew the answer — prime factorization — but Zubeyr was the first
to answer, his voice barely audible even in a sea of quiet. His
classmates gave him a silent thumbs-up to voice their approval, then
moved on to an even more challenging set of problems.
Global Academy’s 430 students frequently have the right
answers. The Columbia Heights K-8 charter school had the highest reading
score among the state’s highest-poverty schools on Minnesota
Comprehensive Assessments scores released last month. And its students
posted the third-highest math score.
Since it opened five years ago in a strip mall — its neighbors are
Napa Auto Parts and a pizza joint — Global Academy has made strides
toward narrowing the achievement gap between white and minority
students. It’s doing so even though more than 90 percent of its
students, most from families recently arrived from Somalia or the Middle
East, live in poverty, and more than 60 percent are still learning
While those two factors typically have been barriers to
academic success, that hasn’t been the case at Global, which has a
waiting list of 900 students. It’s making those gains by instituting a
no-nonsense learning culture, offering a college prep curriculum at
every grade level, embracing the latest technology and inspiring high
“I always tell people that we have the best 400 kids you
could ever hope to teach,” said Helen Fisk, the school’s director and
co-founder. “I would put them up against anyone.”
‘A fabulous, safe place’
The idea behind Global Academy was born when Fisk and
co-founder Melissa Storbakken worked at Twin Cities International
Elementary, a Minneapolis charter school that largely serves students of
East African heritage. Both career educators had become devotees of the
International Baccalaureate program and saw an opportunity to build a
school around the curriculum, which challenges students to learn by
“If you love to read, if you love to learn, if you like
to solve problems, that’s what ultimately makes people successful,” Fisk
“At our school, you’ll notice that teachers won’t feed students the
answers,” Storbakken said. “Instead, they’ll give them the resources and
strategies to find the answers themselves.”
When the school moved into the strip mall space once
occupied by the Academy of Biosciences Middle School, it quickly found
support among members of the Twin Cities’ Somali and Middle Eastern
communities, many of whom were drawn to the school’s no-excuses approach
to learning and its respect for diverse cultures. The school observes
Muslim holidays, serves halal food and offers Arabic at every grade
“It is a fabulous, safe place where they know what every
child is doing, and they allow teachers to do what they do best,” said
Barbara Monzavi, whose daughter, Mitra, is in sixth grade at Global.
“That’s why they get fantastic results.”
A key element shaping the school’s environment is a
nonverbal behavior management strategy used by teachers and staff.
Designed to reduce the time a teacher spends reminding students to do
things like “Be quiet,” it relies on gestures and maintaining a calm
demeanor. Students also obey agreements that govern behavior in the
school’s hallways, bathrooms and lockers.
“It really cuts down on the ‘wa-wa,’ said Storbakken,
imitating the sound made by the teacher in the Peanuts cartoon.
“Classroom time is too valuable to fill it with ‘teacher talk.’ ”
The strategy appears to be paying off. Last year, Global
students scored higher than the statewide average for proficiency in
reading and math on the MCAs. And despite a drop experienced by all
state schools because of the rollout of a tough new reading test this
year, long-term trends show steady growth in that subject for Global
Consequently, Global Academy has consistently made the
Star Tribune’s “Beating the Odds” list, which recognizes academic
achievement on the MCAs in relation to a school’s poverty level.
Fisk “and her team have taken several good ideas and
implemented them in a consistent and complementary way,” said Joe
Nathan, a St. Paul charter school expert and director of the Center for
‘Here to learn’
Eighth-grader Ranya Agami, who thinks she might want to
be a mathematician some day, said that while school leaders keep
students’ focus on learning, Global is not void of fun.
In addition to Lego League and field trips, she describes
friendly competition among classes where good behavior is rewarded with
“If we win, we’ll have a party,” she said. “It motivates us to be good. I think we are.”
It’s an opinion shared by Chalich, a veteran teacher
who’s been employed by the school since it opened. She says she’s
constantly impressed by her students and their parents, who turn out en
masse for events like spelling bees and science fairs.
“They want to know when their child is not performing
well, when their homework isn’t done,” she said. “Their students are
here to learn, and that’s our expectation, too.
Commitment to technology
Chalich said she also appreciates Global’s commitment to
using technology in the classroom. Last year, the school launched a
one-to-one iPad program. Some teachers have software that allows them to
see responses from students working on their iPads.
“It offers immediate feedback,” Chalich said. “It allows us to see who needs more help and who needs more challenging work.”
While Storbakken and Fisk say they’d like to have a
little more building space, they have no plans to leave Columbia
Heights. Nor do they have plans to open a high school, despite pleas
“We have a number of students who come back and tell us
that Global is so much harder than their new high school,” Fisk said.
“We love hearing that.”