Dismay, confusion over St. Paul Park charter school's impending closure

Its authorizer has not renewed its contract, citing academic and leadership concerns.
Natural Science Academy has about 75 students enrolled this year.

Natural Science Academy has about 75 students enrolled this year. 

A St. Paul Park-based charter school is facing closure after losing its authorizer.

The Osprey Wilds Environmental Learning Center, which recently changed its name from the Audubon Center of the North Woods, has chosen not to renew its contract with Natural Science Academy, citing poor academic performance and governance concerns. The Natural Science Academy had previously signed two probationary three-year contracts with them.

Osprey authorizes about 35 schools, according to its website. NSA is the only school out of the 10 up for renewal this year to not receive another contract, Erin Anderson, director of charter school authorizing, told BMTN.

The 14-year-old elementary school’s website lists 11 staff members. Around 75 students are enrolled this year.

NSA staff and parents have pushed back against the decision in letters to the Minnesota Department of Education, state legislators and a widely circulated petition

They argue that the closure is unfairly based on state test scores, but the Osprey Wilds Environmental Learning Center’s correspondence to the school emphasizes poor performance according to other measures, including curriculum-based measures chosen by the school and nationally normed growth assessments. In addition, the authorizer cited concerns over the school’s teacher-run leadership structure and governance.

“It must be frustrating to have just been informed of this, and we are disappointed to learn that the school board did not adequately advise its community of the risk of closure, in view of the numerous communications from ACNW to the school,” Anderson wrote to parents, citing notices sent to the school in May 2018 and February 2019 concerning low academic performance.

In order to be eligible for renewal, the school had to score at least 50 out of 100 points on an assessment based largely on state test scores, measures chosen by the school and nationally normed growth assessments. The school scored 60.7, making it eligible, but it didn’t meet the standard for five out of eight academic categories, a March 13 notice from Osprey to NSA says.

Those five areas are reading growth, math growth, reading proficiency, math proficiency and science proficiency, based on three years worth of various measurements of academic performance.

A report from January details that Osprey received complaints against the school’s lead teacher from two former employees in November 2017 and December 2019. 

The complaints alleged “a very stressful and negative workplace” and “a toxic environment of practices,” according to the report.

“The school has functioned under basically the same instructional leadership structure for at least the last six years (two contract periods) which has resulted in persistently low academic achievement and a lack of accountability for student outcomes,” Osprey wrote in its March notice of non-renewal to the school.

At an informal hearing with Osprey in April, the school provided "ample evidence" of an improved workplace culture, Anderson said in an email. The non-renewal was ultimately based on poor academic performance and "NSA's failure to properly conduct its corporate governance," she said.

Teachers, school leaders dismayed by decision

Advocates for the school have expressed confusion over the non-renewal process and surprise that the school is being closed during the pandemic.

Kate Maki, whose fourth-grade student has attended the school since kindergarten, began working at the school as a special projects coordinator two years ago.

“I really like the school, I completely believe in it. And I’m watching it grow and change and become this great thing,” Maki said.

The school had a “bad year” when it was renewed in 2017, Maki said, and implemented an expeditionary learning-based curriculum the next fall.

“Our last year’s science scores were phenomenal … We were like, why are we not getting an A+ on this?” she said.

She said she and other staff members had the understanding that three-year contracts were the norm.

“They said, you’ve been on probation for six years total. And we’re like, well, that’s always been the case … So why would we even bat an eye?”

Harry Adler, who joined the school’s board of directors in March, and has held multiple roles in education including principal, executive director of a charter school and current work helping an authorizer assess schools, expressed similar confusion.

“What I find strange about it is, many of their schools are basically on ‘probation’ because they’re on three-year contracts. So they call these three-year contracts probationary, and it has not been that long since the state has offered five-year contracts,” he said.

In a complaint letter to the Minnesota Department of Education, Adler emphasized that comparing the school’s scores to other students across the state and neighboring District 833 doesn’t show an adequate representation of students’ academic success because of the school’s small class sizes. 

Thirty-nine students took the MCA tests in 2019, documents show. 

Osprey’s 2019 annual report shows that 15 percent of its schools had scored lower than 50 percent of their points on its academic performance evaluation, he added.

“NSA is being used as a sacrificial lamb to give the perception that ACNW (Audubon Center of the North Woods) is providing strong oversight. I believe the closure decision cannot be justified analytically based on the data and is ethically wrong given the pandemic,” Adler said in the letter. 

MDE has said it will look into the complaint, Adler said. 

Correction: A previous version of this story inaccurately described the timing of the employee complaints. In separate instances, two former employees sent a complaint to Osprey after they had stopped working there. 

Next Up

coronavirus, covid-19, icu

MN up to 45 counties with high or substantial COVID-19 transmission

Delta is leading to more cases – and more severe cases – involving children in other states.

Screen Shot 2021-05-23 at 9.08.48 AM

University of St. Thomas latest to require vaccines for students, staff

The college had previously offered incentives to get vaccinated, but is now mandating them.

Pixabay - crowd park outdoors CROP

New forecast predicts more than 4 million Twin Cities residents by 2050

The Met Council believes job opportunities will also steadily grow.

Mike Zimmer

Zimmer on unvaccinated players: 'Some of the things they've read are just, woof, out there'

The coach says he's doesn't understand why some players won't get vaccinated.

Ramsey County - Karina Her booking photo crop 2

Charges: St. Paul woman killed ex-husband, buried him in her back yard

A woman is accused of fatally shooting her ex-husband and burying him in the yard.

Screen Shot 2021-08-02 at 8.02.46 AM

Riverview Cafe in south Minneapolis closes, plans to 'reassess' its future

The cafe and wine bar was open in the Longfellow neighborhood for 23 years.

Pixabay - camp food fire

Bear sightings prompt food storage mandate up north

Visitors to the forest and BWCAW will be required to 'properly' store their food.

covid, vaccine

Here is Minnesota's COVID-19 update for Monday, August 2

The delta variant has been leading to higher case counts and hospitalizations in Minnesota.

Bloomington Walmart

Customers reportedly flee after scare inside Bloomington Walmart

People ran believing it was gunshots, but police say it was actually fireworks.

Racket website screengrab aug 2

New alt news site from former City Pages editors launches this month

Racket will be supported through a reader subscription model.

Flickr - Grand Canyon National Park - bison close-up

Dakota County to reintroduce bison to the area next year

The bison will be introduced to Spring Lake Park Reserve near Hastings and Rosemont.



St. Paul Public Schools joins Minneapolis starting year remotely

The school board voted Wednesday to begin remotely for at least six weeks

St. Paul parochial school will close after almost 130 years

Central Lutheran School needed $450,000 to stay open this year.

hopkins high school

Hopkins to remove police from the high school after students call for change

The school board voted to not renew the contract with Minnetonka police at the end of the year.

Pedestrian dies after being hit by 2 vehicles in St. Paul Park

The Roseville man suffered fatal injuries in the collision.


Deal reached: St. Paul teacher strike ends, school to resume

Classes are set to resume on Monday, March 16.

school, students

Minneapolis school redistricting plan approved, here's what it means

Here’s an overview of what the plan entails and the arguments for and against it


Take a look at St. Paul Public Schools' back-to-school planning

Families will have the option for distance learning no matter what the state decides.