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'Mood for Change': Impetus for Model School

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A group of Minneapolis business leaders, educators, and parents is sponsoring an unusual competition to gather proposals for an experimental new school that puts education-reform ideas into practice.

The winning proposals will serve as the blueprint for the new public school, to be called the Chiron School after the mythological centaur who tutored Greek heroes. Funded in part with private donations, the proposed school is scheduled to open in fall 1989. "We're interested in making a real difference,'' said Ray H. Harris, the Minneapolis real-estate developer who is chairman of the group.

"We're not willing to put up a pot of money and tell the school system they can just do anything they want with it,'' he said.

'Mood For Change'

Mr. Harris said the ideological seeds of the project were planted six to eight months ago, when a handful parents and business people informally began discussing ways to improve the city's school system.

"There's just a mood for change in the city right now,'' Mr. Harris said, noting that the school system had a newly elected school board and would soon have a new superintendent. School officials are in the midst of filling the vacancy created earlier this year when Richard R. Green resigned as superintendent to become chancellor of New York City schools.

"Minneapolis has a good school system but we felt it could even be better,'' Mr. Harris said.

Though Minneapolis students generally score above average on nationally normed tests, an estimated 9.7 percent of its 7th through 12th graders dropped out during the 1986-1987 school year. Officials estimate that about one-third of the district's nearly 40,000 students are "at risk'' of failure for one reason or another.

Louise Sundin, the president of the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers and one of the educators recruited by Mr. Harris, said the real-estate developer hit upon the idea for the competition after reading a speech by Albert Shanker, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, the national union of which the Minneapolis teachers' group is an affiliate.

In the speech, Mr. Shanker said the framework for academic reform should come from the "frontline professionals''--the educators and administrators working in the schools.

General Guidelines

The Chiron School competition is open to anyone, though the bulk of the requests for proposals were mailed to the 2,700 teachers in the school system. Up to five proposals will be awarded $1,000 each during the first round of the contest, which has a June 30 deadline.

Those five winners will be invited to submit more comprehensive plans, and the best of that round of proposals will be awarded $5,000.

In an effort to encourage proposal-writers to incorporate current educational research in their plans, the sponsors have included a list of recommended documents in their requests for proposals.

They also specify that the proposed school must serve a culturally and educationally diverse student population. And though the start-up costs of the new school will initially be borne by the business community, the school must be designed to operate at the same cost per pupil as other district schools.

Eventually, sponsors hope, the Minneapolis Public Schools will assume total financial responsibility for the school and replicate it in other schools across the city.

Contest participants must also show how responsibility for the new school could be divided between the public and private sectors with neither in absolute control.

Beyond these criteria, few parameters have been placed on the proposals. The sponsors have not specified the grade levels to be served by the new school, its location, the size of the student body, or the amount of funding to be raised for it by the business community.

The proposals also need not conform to existing federal and local education regulations.

"I don't know of any other area that's asking for ideas as broadly and as widely as we are,'' said Mr. Harris, who earned a reputation as a "mover and shaker'' in the city after he helped revitalize a depressed section of downtown Minneapolis by building a complex of stores, restaurants, and offices.

He said the committee he helped form is currently made up of "14 or 15'' parents, business people, educators, school-administration officials, and some private educational consultants who in the past have been critical of that city's school system.

'Taking the Same Risks'

"This is a way to get around some of the things that have been uncomfortable about public-private partnerships,'' said Janet Wittuhn, administrative assistant to the acting superintendent of schools in Minneapolis and a member of the committee. "Often educators don't like business people coming in and telling them what to do and business people think we're inflexible.''

"This way,'' she said, "we're both going in and taking the same risks.''

The idea of public-private ventures in education is one that has caught on in a number of communities across the nation in recent years.

In Minneapolis, the Chiron School will be the second such project taking shape this year. Next fall, school officials plan to open the Public School Academy with $350,000 funding over three years from the General Mills Corporation. The school, whose 140 kindergarten-through-4th-grade students are drawn from throughout the city, will limit class size to 14 and employ joint decision-making among faculty, administrators, and parents.

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