A new charter school is planned for Duluth by members of the city's African-American community.
The school is registered as a nonprofit organization with the Minnesota Secretary of State's office as the Family Freedom Academy. A middle school, it is expected to open its doors in 2019 and serve up to 100 students in grades six through eight.
"Our goal is to figure out how to improve the education outcomes of young people - particularly kids of color," said Sharon Witherspoon, one of the school's organizers, board members and an elder in Duluth's black community, which makes up almost 3 percent of the city's population.
Witherspoon and Xavier Bell met with the News Tribune in Lincoln Park last month to discuss the school, which remains in its planning stages - with no physical place yet to call home and details such as finding a head of schools still to come.
"This is an opportunity for the broader community to see the way in which people of color work, strategize and build together," said Bell, who is the director of community engagement for Community Action Duluth and the creator of Family Freedom Center - a weekly coming together of mostly members of the African-American community.
The community spirit fostered by the past few years worth of Family Freedom Center weekends has helped support the pursuit of a school, Bell and Witherspoon explained.
"The black community knows what this is and knows about this school," Bell said.
At the center, dozens of people, sometimes dozens upon dozens, meet Friday night and all day Saturday for communal meals, activities, testimonial-style sharing and workshops on everything from history to camping. Elders are referred to as kings and queens and have the honor of eating first, while children, parents, singles and couples commiserate and learn together. The center itself is set to grow out of the incubation of Community Action Duluth in the old Lincoln Park Middle School and into its own full-time location later this year, Bell said.
A Family Freedom Academy school board has been meeting monthly since January. The board was convened after Bell and others obtained an abandoned charter previously secured for a school proposed by The Hills Youth and Family Services in the Woodland neighborhood of Duluth.
The New Hope Academy was planned in 2016 to educate the students who are The Hills clients - kids who live at the campus for mental health and behavioral treatment. But legal issues emerged with having such a narrow scope for enrollment, and a subsequent agreement between the treatment facility and the Duluth school district to continue educating the students brought New Hope Academy to a close.
Phil Strom founded New Hope Academy and has been involved in charter schools in Duluth from the beginning. After agreeing with its board to shelve New Hope, Strom said he wondered "if there was another cohort of kids who could be well-served by a charter school?"
He knew Bell, who was on the The Hills board of directors, and advised him of the soon-to-be-vacant charter.
"What motivates these folks is to give their kids a better educational opportunity than they're getting," Strom said.
Bell and others within Duluth's African-American community agreed to take on the charter. One former board member told the News Tribune that being granted the charter was like receiving a 10,000-piece puzzle - something to appreciate but with a lot of building to come.
"I'm just basically excited there's an opportunity we have to roll this thing out," said interim board chair Claudie Washington, "and I'm prayerful that it be successful."
Washington is a past president of the NAACP in Duluth, and has long been on the scene as a cultural leader in Duluth. He only took over board leadership recently, and said all seven board positions are temporary until an elected board takes over.
The charter school comes with both early money and support from a Minneapolis-based authorizing agency, Pillsbury United Communities - a carryover from the original charter.
Bell and Witherspoon said the school is working with a $175,000 federal Charter Schools Program Grant with a chance to reapply for the same amount next year provided certain benchmarks are met. The authorizer has given the board a start-up checklist to serve as a roadmap to reaching those.
Pillsbury United specializes in trauma-informed learning environments and supporting culturally and ethnically diverse campuses, said its website. It has several charter schools throughout the Twin Cities.
Antonio Cardona is director of Pillsbury United's Urban Institute for Service and Learning. He spoke with the News Tribune this week about the new charter school in Duluth, explaining the authorizor's role as an outsourced education department for the school, with a performance-based contract between the two.
"Duluth is a little bit of a different case," Cardona said. "It's smaller. Most of the chartering happens in the Twin Cities, and the original intent of the school was more specific."
Cardona said Pillsbury supported Family Freedom Academy's assumption of the charter and its plan to open later than what was intended for New Hope Academy.
While the inclination might be to describe the Family Freedom Academy as "a black charter school," Cardona said it will be subject to all anti-discrimination and fairness laws.
"Just like every other charter, we ask for a well built-out enrollment policy," Cardona said, while adding that charter schools are often "influenced based on who the folks are that are involved."
Witherspoon retired from the University of Minnesota Duluth in 2014 as a supervisor working in financial aid and registration and has spent several years volunteering with the Duluth public schools - including being the chair of an equity council and advising the district on issues faced by black students.
"I've tried to change a system," Witherspoon said.
But to hear her and Bell tell it, the time had come to try something different. Often sought to consult on solutions, they say they now want to see the African-American community build something of its own.
They cited higher jobless rates for black workers in Duluth, poorer graduation rates and a suspension rate for black students that is dismayingly higher than their numbers. "Black students accounted for 33 percent of the total number of days students were suspended but make up only 6 percent of enrollment," reported the News Tribune in April.
Up to 100 children attending a charter school would mean state aid dollars once bound for other public schools would instead go to the charter "district." Duluth school district officials did not respond to a News Tribune inquiry in time for this story.
"I'm not looking for a fight," Bell said. "Our kids have specific needs. ... This could be a catalyst for us to change our condition."