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Firm To Fund Model School in Minneapolis

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The Minneapolis school district has received corporate support to establish a model school that will test the effectiveness of several school-reform concepts.

The General Mills Foundation has approved a $350,000 grant to help fund the tuition-free academy, which will experiment with such practices as smaller classes, closer school-parent relationships, and more decisionmaking by teachers.

The academy, which will open at an existing school site next fall, eventually will serve about 200 kindergarten to 6th-grade students representing a cross-section of the city's population.

A primary goal of the new school is to provide more "eyeball-to-eyeball contact" between teachers and students, said Lawrence H. Sawyer, director of government relations for the General Mills Foundation.

To encourage that personal engagement, he said, the program will eliminate remedial programs that pull children out of the regular classroom and will hold pupil-teacher ratios to 14 to 1. The district's average is 25 to 1.

Teachers will play a greater role in decisions on school policies and finances, and in turn will be held accountable for student performance, Mr. Sawyer said. In addition, they will each have phones at their desks and answering machines at home to encourage contacts with parents.

The project, one in a growing number of business-backed efforts to encourage reform, is similar to an experimental school being launched this year by a Chicago businessman and several corporate sponsors.

Mr. Sawyer said he began explor8ing the idea for such a school in Minneapolis after talks with educators convinced him that current compensatory efforts were not meeting the needs of a growing number of low-income students in the district.

The proposal was "challenging and innovative enough to make it interesting to the General Mills board," he said.

The idea won the support of Richard R. Green, the district's former school superintendent, as a way to give reform principles "a formal test in a contemporary setting," said Jan L. Witthuhn, administrative assistant to the acting school superintendent, William C. Phillips.

Ms. Witthuhn said some members of the school board, which approved the academy on a 4-3 vote last month, questioned whether it was fair to lower class sizes at the academy while asking otherel10lschools to endure overcrowding.

But she said school officials and teachers were sold on the "commonsense appeal" of smaller classes and more teacher control. The school's design also reflects, she said, "frustration with the pull-out model," which draws children with learning problems out of regular classes to work with specialists.

By substituting generalists for specialists, Mr. Sawyer noted, the school will be able to implement lower ratios at no extra cost. When start-up expenses are factored in, he said, the school's projected $553,000 cost in the first year roughly parallels the cost of educating 200 students at a typical Minneapolis school.

But Patricia E. Scott, the board's chairman, said members who opposed the proposal questioned whether special-education students could receive appropriate services and whether the shared decisionmaking structure would accomplish the school's goals.

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