School of Leadership
Board members and volunteers gathered at the site on July 28 to help spread the word about the School of Leadership for Public Service, which plans to start this fall with grades 6-10 and eventually grow into a K-12 program. An open house is scheduled on August 3. Photo by Christine Wisch

A new Saint Paul charter school endorsed by Ramsey County Sheriff Bob Fletcher could likely be one of the first of its kind in the country for attracting students interested in public service and law enforcement careers.

The School of Leadership for Public Service is expected to open this fall in the former Saint Columba School building, 1330 Blair Ave. School officials hope to enroll 120 students in grades 6-10 at the start and eventually grow into a K-12 school with as many as 700 students.

Public affairs consultant and Saint Paul Police Foundation executive director Donna Swanson, a former teacher, has been working to get the school up and running. After helping Fletcher on his 2018 campaign for sheriff, the Summit Hill resident met with him and suggested developing a charter school based on public service.

“We wanted to bring children into the wheelhouse of public service and public safety so they understand at an early age what it means to be a probation officer, a social worker, a police officer, a paramedic,” Swanson said. “We want to build a better perception of public service and public safety at an early age for kids.”

   

Fletcher said in a statement, “We all know this is a critical time in our communities. From a public safety perspective, the actions we take now must make a positive long-term difference. It’s essential for safety and overall community well-being that youth have personal experiences with the people, careers and opportunities in public service.”

School of Leadership
The new charter school plans to open in the former Saint Columba building at 1330 Blair Ave. Photo by Brad Stauffer

So far, Swanson said 109 students have expressed an interest in enrolling at the school, which is authorized by the Minnesota Guild and has its administrative offices at 905 Jefferson Ave. If it fails to reach its enrollment goal, the guild will collaborate with the school’s board on deciding whether to open, she said. Roy Magnuson, a founding board member, conceded that several other charter schools are either opening or expanding in Saint Paul, creating a challenging environment.

“Competition is a bit higher than it would have been if we would have been opening in 2019 or even 2020 without COVID,” he said. Magnuson pointed to Saint Paul City Schools, a preK-12 charter program formed by a recent merger, and the emergence of schools for Somali children as competitors to the School of Leadership for Public Service.

 

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Swanson is hoping for the best. The school has hired an interim executive director and a handful of teachers, with plans to have a staff of eight.

The school will accept students struggling academically because teachers and staff believe they can raise their achievement level in a safe environment.

“We want to help kids who are behind,” Swanson said. “We also have a safety plan that will rival anybody’s.”

“We wanted to bring children into the wheelhouse of public service and public safety so they understand at an early age what it means to be a probation officer, a social worker, a police officer, a paramedic,” Swanson said.

Students will have opportunities to interact with professionals in public service, a benefit whether they enter that field or not, Swanson said. Many professional organizations and individuals have agreed to support the school with volunteers, she said, including a retired judge.

Swanson said the school has received a state charter school programming grant of $650,000, distributed over three years. To recruit more students, the school’s volunteers have been canvassing neighborhoods and reaching out to students through youth organizations.

Magnuson, a coach, former teacher and public information officer for Fletcher, said he sees the school’s mission as employing a “teacher-led” model of instruction and encouraging students to aspire to high standards while exposing students to such professions as law enforcement, public health, emergency medical services, education and the courts.

Magnuson said he participated in a first responder’s camp for high schoolers in July featuring volunteers who work in county and city police, fire, water rescue, EMT and airport departments of local governments. That, he said, is a model for the School of Leadership for Public Service.

The school will offer “career exposure and we hope that over time that will lead to internships for students,” he said.

The public is invited to join school personnel for pizza during an open house from 5-7 p.m. Wednesday, August 3, in the new space. For more information, contact Donna Swanson at 651-492-5487 or visit leadershipforpublicservice.org.

— Frank Jossi

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