The first two words of Nathan Schultz’s LinkedIn profile simply but perfectly describe the 2001 St. Thomas alumnus and, for that matter, his colleagues at Twin Cities Academy:
On a Tuesday morning in December, Schultz met with his senior English class at the charter school on St. Paul’s East Side and did just that – he taught, and with purpose and passion. The class was reviewing a chapter in the novel Fight Club, and the assignment had a twist. Five students had analyzed the chapter and written questions for the class to answer. Schultz sat in back, occasionally sharing an observation and gently steering the conversation.
Different five-student groups took leadership roles the rest of the week on three other books – Slaughterhouse Five, The Woman Warrior and The Bluest Eye. The project was at the heart of a Socratic approach that Schultz favors to engage students in discussion. “When you learn to ask your questions, you begin to find your answers,” he said.
The rapid-fire exchanges between the students both motivate and assure Schultz that he made two wise career choices: to teach, and to teach at Twin Cities Academy.
“I get some autonomy here, and the opportunity to involve students in their own learning,” said Schultz, in his eighth year at the academy and also the founder of its speech team, its Latin Society and its Socrates Cafe discussion group. “I’m not just delivering content, but I am inviting them into academic discourse and allowing them to make discoveries on their own. If I thought I had all the answers, there wouldn’t be any adventure.”
Executive director and principal Betsy Lueth credits teachers like Schultz for vaulting Twin Cities Academy, a public charter school with 610 students in grades six to 12, to prominence. It is one of only 10 public schools cited each of the last six years by the Minnesota Department of Education as a “Reward School” based on student outcomes and success in closing achievement gaps. Of 50 seniors who graduated last spring, all but two enrolled in college.
“We are a teacher-driven school,” said Lueth, who received her master’s degree in educational leadership from St. Thomas in 2001. “We have a group of very persistent professionals always working on how to make things better. They are helping us determine how to get to the next level.”
Schultz “has a true, authentic relationship with students,” she said. “He has a desire to hold students to high expectations and a belief that they can reach those expectations.”
Twin Cities Academy is one of 10 charter schools authorized by St. Thomas and its College of Education, Leadership and Counseling. State law requires an outside organization to authorize charter schools – not manage them but provide curriculum oversight, review academic and financial performance and recommend sound governance practices.
“TCA is a good fit for us,” said Molly McGraw Healy, director of charter authorizing at St. Thomas. “It is a strong school in so many ways. It always looks out for the best academic interests of students, it reflects the values of the community and it values the whole student.”
St. Thomas authorizes 10 public charter schools – soon to be 12 – in the Twin Cities area.
The schools are held to rigorous academic, financial, organizational and governance standards and become models for how to use data in decisions that support student achievement at the classroom, grade, school and network levels.
Academia Cesar Chavez, St. Paul. Opened and authorized by St. Thomas: 2001. Students: 392 in grades K-six. Of note: Provides dual-language education for culturally aware bilingual learners.
Community of Peace Academy, St. Paul. Opened: 1995. Authorized: 2011. Students: 768 in PK-12. Of note: Intentionally teaches character, ethics and nonviolence; high school recognized by state as a “Reward School” in 2014.
Global Academy, Columbia Heights. Opened: 2008. Authorized: 2015. Students: 432 in K-eight. Of note: Offers international baccalaureate program; recognized by Star Tribune as “Beating the Odds” school every year since 2010.
Hiawatha Leadership Academy, Minneapolis. Opened: 2007. Authorized: 2016. Students: 1,064 in K-10. Of note: Has four campuses and hopes to grow to 2,000 students by 2026; recognized by Star Tribune as “Beating the Odds” school every year since 2010 and by the state as a “High Quality” charter school.
Hope Community Academy, St. Paul. Opened and authorized: 2000. Students: 509 in PK-eight. Of note: Focuses on academic rigor, higher-order thinking skills, and instilling Hmong and American values.
Main Street School of Performing Arts, Hopkins. Opened: 2002. Authorized: 2011. Students: 286 in nine-12. Of note: Offers advanced-level courses in music, theater and dance.
Metro Deaf School, St. Paul. Opened: 1992. Authorized: 2013. Students: 88 in grades PK-12. Of note: Nation’s second-oldest charter school; uses bilingual American Sign Language-English model.
Sankofa Underground North (SUN) Academy, Minneapolis. Opened and authorized: 2016. Students: 55 in K-one, growing to K-eight by 2022. Of note: Offers research-based, African-centered model.
Spero Academy, Minneapolis. Opened: 2003. Authorized: 2016. Students: 83 in K-five. Of note: Nationally recognized model of inclusive and tailored education, emphasizing individual attention.
Twin Cities Academy, St. Paul. Opened: 1999 (middle school) and 2006 (high school). Authorized: 2011. Students: 610 in six-12. Of note: Merged schools, constructed new building in 2016.
St. Thomas expects to receive state approval in early 2017 to authorize two additional charter schools:
Face to Face Academy, St. Paul. Opened: 2002. Students: 76 in nine-12. Of note: Open year-round and works with students most at risk of dropping out of high school; recognized by state as “High Quality” charter school.
St. Paul Conservatory for Performing Artists, St. Paul. Opened: 2005. Students: 615 in nine-12. Of note: Educates pre-professional performing artists in music, theater and dance; recognized by state as “High Quality” charter school.
Twin Cities Academy was founded as a middle school (grades six-eight) in 1999 on West Seventh Street in St. Paul and added a high school in 2006. Enrollment growth led to two more moves before the academy merged the middle and high schools last summer and settled into a new building on a 9-acre site that was the former home of a concrete company.
A rigorous curriculum reflects the academy’s mission “to ensure that all students graduate with the skills to achieve in college, to contribute positively to society and to be accepting of all people.”
Lueth points to four “pillars” that serve as a foundation: urban education, college preparation, service learning, and ethnic, academic and socioeconomic diversity. Eighty percent of the students live in St. Paul, half are students of color and 20 percent qualify for special education services.
Last year, 64 percent of students were proficient in reading and 57 percent in math as measured by Minnesota Comprehensive Assessment tests, exceeding St. Paul Public Schools in both areas and the statewide average in reading. Lueth’s goal is “to get into the 80s, and there is no reason we can’t,” she said. She doesn’t accept excuses and she believes that “it takes hard work, creative thinking and passion. We have them here.”
Service-learning programs and volunteerism are integral. Middle school students read at elementary schools, help at a women’s shelter and pack meals for Feed My Starving Children. Freshmen and sophomores work at nonprofit organizations on issues involving racial justice, the elderly and bullying. They make presentations to the entire student body, as do juniors and seniors who choose individual projects. Families volunteer 20 hours a year at the school.
“It’s about giving back and beginning to understand that there is more than just ‘me’ in the world,” Lueth said. “That’s a pretty valuable skill. The joy I have seen in our kids helping others is just amazing. I see a sense of pride in themselves and in our school.”
Lueth arrived at Twin Cities Academy in 2012 after working in international business, teaching in St. Paul schools and serving as the first director of Yinghua Academy, a Chinese immersion charter school then in St. Paul. She left to earn her principal’s license from St. Thomas and consult with charter schools before joining Twin Cities Academy.
Three St. Thomas alumni – academic dean Shannon Gourley, dean of students Erin Amundson and Elizabeth Orme, director of student services and accountability – form the leadership team with Lueth.
Gourley has master’s (2004) and education specialist (2014) degrees from St. Thomas. One year after she completed her undergraduate degree from St. Cloud State University she gambled on the new charter school and became its special education teacher.
“I thought, if I’m going to do it, I better do it now,” she said, and she’ll never forget the school’s first day. “The kids came in, and I’m looking at the other teachers and saying, ‘Whoa, this is actually happening!’ All of our hard work was coming to fruition.”
She became academic dean in 2012. While she spends most of her time supervising and evaluating teachers, her classroom observations allow her to remain connected with students. “If I’m going to do the right job,” she said, “I need to know them.”
Amundson graduated from University of Wisconsin-River Falls in 1999 with a biology degree but didn’t want to go to graduate school right away. She worked two years at a University of Minnesota bookstore before enrolling at St. Thomas to earn a teacher’s license, and she joined Twin Cities Academy in 2003 to teach sixth- and seventh-grade science.
“I really believe in what we do – the small-school community where you get to know everyone and that everyone has something to bring to the table,” said Amundson, who received her master’s degree in education from St. Thomas in 2010. “I would not be happy in my job if I couldn’t be proud of what I contribute to a school like this.”
Amundson credits collaboration as a critical factor in the academy’s success. “It’s bringing people in from the community and it’s going out into the community,” she said. “Parents are so involved.”
Orme earned a bachelor’s degree in psychology from Iowa and a master’s in education from DePaul before returning to the Twin Cities to teach special education at Twin Cities Academy in 2011. She became special education coordinator in 2013 and director of student services and accountability two years ago, when she received her education specialist degree from St. Thomas.
“I had my first interview for a teaching job here, and I knew I wanted to be here right away,” she said. “I liked how teachers worked together and that components of the school were teacher led. I felt I could develop my own teaching style and be supported.”
When Orme started, the academy had two teachers and one paraprofessional devoted to special education. Enrollment growth and recognition that more students needed assistance led to a special education staff today of six teachers, 10 paraprofessionals and contracted services, all under Orme.
Seeing how the academy educated his son persuaded Gary Jader ’90 MBA to get involved. The former UnitedHealth Group executive and St. Thomas adjunct faculty member lived in Oakdale, and his two sons struggled in high school. One did not finish, and he decided to enroll the other at Twin Cities Academy.
“I drove him in every day,” Jader said. “He absolutely hated us for two years, but it worked.” He is a junior at Augsburg College and Jader is chair of the academy’s board.
“It is an incredible school,” he said. “There is such a culture of high expectation. We do not let kids fall through the cracks. We expect parents to volunteer, so I couldn’t stay in the background. Parents are involved. I bet 95 percent of them show up for parent- teacher conferences.”
Schultz is one of many at the academy focused on high achievement and student success. It just took him a few years to figure out that he was destined to be a teacher even though it runs in the family. His dad has taught history at nearby Harding High School for nearly three decades.
After graduating from St. Paul Central, Schultz enrolled at St. Thomas and pursued a double major in English and the classics. He was a paraprofessional at charter schools before he and his wife moved to South Korea in 2004 to teach English. They returned to Minnesota the following year. He obtained his teaching license, taught at another charter school and joined Twin Cities Academy in 2009.
Schultz wanted to teach at Twin Cities Academy because of its college preparatory curriculum. He was encouraged “to teach senior English like it’s a college class,” he said, and he took the advice to heart. He’d once had a family member who received excellent marks on her papers from her high school teachers. After she entered college, she learned that she actually was not ready to write at a college level.
“That lit a fire under me,” he said. “I would not hand students off to others – and I would not give a student a B on a paper if it wasn’t worth a B.”
So, Schultz pushes students in his six classes. He assigns a lot of reading to seniors and requires seven or eight major papers. Students turn in drafts, which he marks and reviews in individual conferences before they submit revised papers. More feedback ensues and students have one more opportunity to resubmit their papers.
Students appreciate the attention. Anna Doane, a 2014 Twin Cities Academy graduate and a recipient of a full- tuition Dease Scholarship to St. Thomas, had 11th-grade English and Advanced Placement English with Schultz. She called him “the best English teacher I’ve ever had.
“He cared so much about how I learned,” said Doane, a junior biology major who hopes to become a physician’s assistant. “The way he started his class – we had discussion circles, which a lot of schools don’t do. I’ve never met a teacher like him.”
One former student thanked Schultz by creating a poster for his classroom. His photo is in the middle of the poster and he is pointing, surrounded by comments that he wrote on her papers: “Where’s the connection?” “You need literary evidence to support your choice.” “What do you mean by this?” “Where is your thesis statement?” “Tell me more.” “WHY?! WHY?! WHY?!”
On the first day of class, Schultz writes the word “tree” on the board and asks students to draw what they see in their minds. They share very different pictures, and he uses the exercise as a motivational tool for the entire course.
“If there is such diversity of images and ideas about a single word,” Schultz said, “what will happen when we begin looking at entire poems, novels and articles? If you don’t share what you see with the rest of us, we will never see your ‘tree,’ and our reading will be less complete; however, when you raise your voice and share your perspectives, we will see more.”
Read more from St. Thomas magazine.