Parents explain why Mn Charter Public School Enrollment is way up

Variations of the column below appeared in several APG of East Central Minnesota newspapers during October, 2020.  Papers used quotes from some parents in communities they served.  The column below includes 25 quotes from parents. None of the published columns included all of the quotes that appear below.

Parents explain why charter public school enrollment is way up

By Joe Nathan

When parents use words like “life-changing” or “life-saving,” it’s easy to see why the K-12 enrollment in Minnesota’s suburban and rural chartered public schools has increased by tens of thousands of students over the last 18 years. These are schools open to all, with no admissions tests. A new study, “Minnesota Charter and District School Demographics,” by the Center for School Change, where I work, shows K-12 enrollment in charters has grown by more than 50,000 since 2001-2002. Minnesota’s district school enrollment declined by more than 25,000. More than 20 parents who responded to an inquiry help explain growth in the “charter sector” of public education in Minnesota.

Here are a few examples of parents’ insights:


Amy Alpaugh explained: “Cologne Academy had a plan to enrich our daughter’s learning with the small class size learning, advance learning opportunities, and opening her up to communicate with all her peers. The positive effects of Cologne Academy (with my daughter have been) confidence, problem solving skills, time management skills, accountability and her ability to think of more than one possibility to an answer. You see, Cologne Academy is more than a charter school, it is her extended family. There are no other words for how much all the teachers, staff, principals, and executive director do and care for the students to succeed at Cologne Academy.”

Jenny Haugen wrote: “We decided to switch our oldest son to Cologne Academy midway through second grade because we couldn’t seem to get on the same page with his current school about goals, abilities, and communication between staff and ourselves. After switching to Cologne, we were quickly able to relax because we received the communication we were looking for, we were on the same page as far as goals to push for and what our son was capable of, we had an abundance of support from not only the classroom teacher and special education staff but the entire staff at Cologne, and we have now reached a point where our son doesn’t even qualify for special education services because he was pushed to the extent of his abilities and is able to navigate school and advocate for himself.”

Lynn Peterson, the school’s executive director, reports that it opened in 2008 128 students.  Today it enrolls 662.


Crystal Higgins, of Spring Lake Park, explained:  “I have kids in 4th and 8th grade. I had heard good things about Davinci and we were not happy with our local public school. We love Davinci.”

Kelly Zender, from Hugo, wrote:  “We have students in the fifth  and 8th grades. We also have a student who graduated from DaVinci. I chose to send my children to Davinci because of the warm and welcoming community, the high academic standards and achievements, the diversity, and the teachers and staff who are devoted to teaching the whole child. Davinci has been a great fit for our family. My children have grown academically, emotionally, and are well rounded learners and people. They are treated as individuals and the learning is differentiated to fit their needs.”

Katie Manella, from Coon Rapids, wrote: “We have a first and fourth grader in DaVinci Academy of Arts and Sciences (in Ham Lake). I’ve always loved the community feel of DaVinci. I also love the relationships that my kids have built with the staff. The staff really goes up and beyond to get to know each child. … Our kids love what they are learning and even in such an unusual year they are so excited for their in person days at school.”

DaVinci Academy opened in 2008 with 160 students. This K-8 school now enrolls approximately 860 students. The U.S Department of Education has given the school its “Blue Ribbon Award,” signifying selection as one of the nation’s best schools.


Dawn Rynders has had three children at Eagle Ridge Academy in Minnetonka. She told me that the school “gave us a ‘private school feel’ with uniforms and a high focus on academic & academics. My kids were taught how to think – and how to struggle with the process of learning My older son earned higher grades in college that at Eagle Ridge; the school’s environment really prepared youngsters  for college.”

Rynders continued,   “In a smaller school, kids have an ability to try more things like extracurriculars – there’s room for them. Our daughter started playing on the basketball team as a sophomore. The team wasn’t great but she learned a lot. She probably would not have been able to do this is a larger school.”

Jason Ulrich, executive director at Eagle Ridge Academy in Minnetonka, reported that the school has grown from 108 students in 2004 to 1,455 today. 


Susie Packer explained that she has one child, a ninth grader, in the FIT Academy. She likes that it is a small school: “Teachers get to know you and can tell when you’re struggling and not just based on the grade you’re getting. Teachers are always willing to help and truly care.  FIT Academy understood and helped her work through her anxiety.” The family lives on the Farmington-Lakeville border.

Tsebaot Rediet lives in Apple Valley. The family has one child, a sixth grader, at FIT Academy. Rediet told me: “We enrolled because of the school’s mission related to the importance of physical education and intellectual development. Our son has improved so much in his social skills, which is absolutely exciting.”

Claud Allaire is founder and executive director of the FIT Academy (Fitness, Intellect, and Teamwork) in Apple Valley. He reported that the school has grown from 180 students in 2017 to 290 today.


 Ashley Schweninger, a parent at Kaleidoscope Charter School in Otsego, wrote, “I live in Otsego and have three kiddos at KCS: 5th grader, 3rd grader and 1st grader. We were drawn towards the small class sizes, the family and community, (and) the teachers’ ability to adjust their instruction for each child. Teachers and staff have taken the time to know my children by name and know their interests. My oldest in particular was greatly encouraged to step out of her comfort zone and try new things like participating in student council and Battle of the Books.”

Dana Anton, who has a 15-year-old sophomore at Kaleidoscope, explained: “We chose Kaleidoscope because we wanted our daughter to have a chance to excel. In the larger public school she was only a number. Kaleidoscope has been amazing. Our daughter has flourished due to the educators and staff. The level of care and the one-on-one support has assisted in her achievements.”

Amy Jorgenson, a school staff member, reported that Kaleidoscope Charter School has grown from 160 in 2010 to 570 students today.


Jim Lorge, a Lakes International Language Academy parent, reports that the family wanted their 10th grader in a smaller school. “We were really intrigued by the IB model.  We were impressed by personal attention. It’s been great – communications & responsiveness really sets the school apart.”

Parent Meyri Ruano explained through a translator that she has a 15-year-old and a 17-year-old at the school. “I chose LILA because of the good reviews and because it offered the opportunity for my children to learn in Spanish. I would describe it as an excellent school. Teachers are great at communicating with students and parents. I also like the fact that my children get to learn about many different cultures.”

Shannon Peterson, Lakes International Language Academy director, told me that the school has grown from 177 K-12 students in 2004 to 1,300 in 2020, along with 100 pre-K students.


Maze Mansour, a New Heights Charter School parent, explained: “I enrolled my daughter in New Heights because she did not like bigger schools and she was not performing well. Since she was moved to New Heights her performance increased and she was happier with the staff.  She got better one on one with the teachers and she liked that. She does not want to change this school. This school really tries to improve the kids’ morality and education.”

Jodi Wegge, a Stillwater resident, wrote: “We chose New Heights due to the small size of the school as well as the number of students per classroom. Both my children and myself prefer a school that is able to provide individualized attention to the needs of the student — which New Heights is able to do. My son has been able to add additional schoolwork to match his speed and academic abilities. My boys have learned to speak up and ask for help even to the highest level if they feel there is an issue with other students or staff and come up with a solution together. One of my sons did leave NH to attend the SJHS in 7th grade to try that type of setting, however he came back to NH after the first week. I have seen him excel in his school work and he enjoys going to school every day.”

Tom Kearney, a founder and executive director of New Heights, reports that the K-12 school has fluctuated between 107 and 200 enrolled students since it opened in 1993.


Brian Papworth, a parent at Northwest Passage High School in Coon Rapids, told me: “Northwest Passage is exactly what my son need. It’s a true gift for us. Both of our boys have learning differences that have led us to their respective schools. We are new to Minnesota and are very grateful to have the choice of a charter school for their education.”

Melissa Sondrol wrote, “My son is a 10th grader at Northwest Passage High School.  It has been a life saver for him.  He’s on the autism spectrum. He’s one of the kids who slipped through the cracks.  We’ve gone from a sullen kid who doesn’t smile much to a youngster who is excited about school and has many friends.”

Christy Carmichael said her son is in his senior year at Northwest Passage High School. She wrote: “The school has been nothing short of life-changing for him. He doesn’t do well in class settings. He needs constant instant challenge. Our son has been able to explore his passion for computer programming. He’s been able to launch what he thinks he wants to do the rest of his life. He built software system to run the school’s locks. The faculty functions as guides and inspirations.”

Peter Wieczorek, Executive Director at the school, told me that enrollment has grown from about 75 in 1999, to about 180 today.  The school wants to remain small and individualized.


Cathy Gallo explained, “My husband and I have three daughters who attend PACT Charter School: a third, 5th, and 6th grader. My husband is an alumni of PACT. Our middle daughter really struggled in public school and was on the PACT waitlist for over a year. We chose to enroll her because of the small class sizes and the personalized education plan. PACT was able to give one of my daughters an IEP after years of fighting the public school system to get her IEP meeting. Within 30 days of starting PACT, she had a full education plan set up and services started to help her reach her full potential.”

Amy Erendu, PACT’s executive director for education told me “ We opened in 1994-1995 with 84 students. We currently have 672 students.”


 Paladin parent Colleen Fodness told me that her daughter is on the autism spectrum.  While “she’s a good student, she needed an open, accepting, flexible environment. She needed teachers who could adapt the environment. She’s thriving at Paladin, where she feels accepted, not different.”

Tammy Bustamante told me she enrolled a youngster at Paladin because of violence at another school. “Paladin’s staff was very encouraging. They go on trips with students – both camping & fishing – they are there for students.”

Brandon Wait, Paladin Career and Technical High School’s executive director, told me that the school opened in 2003 with 84 students. Today it has around 200. “We’ve intentionally remained small (around 200) to keep that community feel.”


Kim Master has a fourth and seventh grader at Partnership Academy in Richfield. She wrote: “I was desperately looking for a place that could meet my kids’ special needs (significantly behind in school and had fallen through the cracks in public schools).”

However, she explained, “Upon touring PA, I immediately felt like I was part of a family. They HEARD me, spoke highly of my children’s abilities and resiliency without having even met them. And it was so clear that they cherished all of their students and families, and knew them all personally, by the interactions I observed. I knew without a doubt it’s where I wanted the boys to be.”

She continued: “The oldest transitioned to PA this past spring, coming from a long stay at a day treatment program because of emotional/behavioral needs. He was working on subjects two years behind grade level. PA teachers (general Ed and special ed both) worked with him daily. By the end of the year he was, no exaggeration, doing grade level work and getting straight As. …PA supported him seamlessly via distance learning. And most importantly, he learned he was SMART and CAPABLE and he knew he was cared about, personally.  The staff, including directors themselves, walked alongside me as guardian and honored my voice and perspective at every step. I truly feel indebted to this incredible school.”

Master said her fourth grader started at Partnership Academy this school year and is loving it: “His teacher cares, his special ed teacher cares, all the staff care.”

Lisa Hendricks, executive director at Partnership Academy, told me that the school opened in 2002 with 115 students. Today it has 488.


Mike Fabisch, a parent and teacher at PiM, wrote: “My son went to PiM for four years. He graduated last June. He is now attending the University of Michigan, one of the top schools for musical theater in the country. He was one of 24 selected from over 2,000 that applied for the program. This can be directly attributed to his time at PiM. We initially enrolled our son at PiM for two main reasons. First, my son wanted to be able to attend a school that would allow him to put more focus on his art. Second, he did not want to attend a large “factory” school. PiM fit the bill to perfection. From the moment we walked in the door, we were made to feel like we were part of their family. How has PiM helped my child? PiM not only allowed my child to continue excelling academically (he has always been a straight-A student), he grew as an individual and even more so as an artist. Any student who wishes to excel in their art, increase their confidence as an individual, and/or pursue higher education could not find an institution and staff more dedicated to helping them achieve their goals.”

Matt McFarlane, the executive director at PiM (Performing Institute of Minnesota) Arts High School, reported that the school has grown from about 89 students in 2004 to 355 currently enrolled.


Anne Olson wrote: “I am a huge supporter of St. Croix Prep and other charter schools. I believe it’s important to have choices regarding education. I have three children who have attended St. Croix Prep since they each started kindergarten. I now have a junior, sophomore and a 7th grader.

“I wanted a rigorous academic focus for my children, in a smaller and more intimate setting. I liked that my kids could stay at one school from kindergarten through 12th grade. I also appreciate St. Croix Prep’s focus on character development and the arts. … My children are developing critical thinking skills, organizational skills and an appreciation for good citizenship.  Along the way they have developed lasting friendships and have been involved in a close-knit school community.”

Jon Gutierrez, the school’s executive director, explained that it opened in 2004 as a K-7 school with 200 students and now has 1,200 students, grades K-12.


Swan River Montessori parent Amanda Glunz wrote: “I enrolled my daughter at Swan River Montessori so she could get a hands on education that embraces her curiosity and challenges her academically. The school staff go above and beyond and have been simply wonderful. My child has flourished in the Montessori environment and we are thankful to be part of the Swan River family.” Glunz chairs the school’s board, which includes parents, teachers at the school and community members.

Minnesota Department of Education reports that the Swan River enrolled 158 students in the 2019-20 school year.

Let’s acknowledge that Minnesota has many excellent district schools as well as excellent chartered public schools. Legislators in 43 states have adopted chartering to empower both families and educators. In some places, chartering encouraged traditional districts to seek and implement ideas from their faculty.

The charter idea is that parents, educators and community members will have opportunities to create new public schools, open to all, designed to more effectively meet the needs of some students, operating either in or outside district control. Families then may select among district and chartered public schools.

Americans support opportunities to try new things, as long as innovators are responsible for results and operate within agreed conditions. The opportunity to create has been one of the central reasons for American progress. We’re ALL better off with choices and opportunities, whether it’s a cellphone, a better car, or a new approach to education.

The report from the Center for School Change found that:

— Minnesota’s chartered public schools serve a higher percentage of students from low-income families, families of color and families for whom English is a second language than conventional districts. Charters and districts serve approximately the same percentage of students with special needs.

— About half of charter public school enrollment is in suburbs and greater Minnesota, about half is in the Twin Cities.

— Charter K-12 enrollment in the last 18 years grew from 10,162 in 2001 to 61,944 in 2019-20. Meanwhile traditional enrollment went from 831,535 to 806,055. So the majority of students continue in district schools. But there’s a steady movement into chartered public schools.

The report was co-authored by St. Louis Park High School graduate Aaliyah Hodge and me. Hodge earned a University of Minnesota undergraduate degree at age 19, and a master’s at the Humphrey School at 21. The report is here

Like district schools, charters vary widely in philosophy, curriculum and size. Wise educators will learn from the most effective schools — whether district or chartered.

Joe Nathan, formerly a Minnesota public school educator and PTA president, directs the Center for School Change. Reactions welcome at