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Heart of the Earth Charter School emerges stronger from travails

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MINNEAPOLIS - Minneapolis ponytails and a multitude of feet move in staccato time to the resounding drum beat on a Friday afternoon at Heart of the Earth Charter School in Minneapolis. A circle-drumming, dancing and prayer opens and closes each week at the school, which is pulling itself out of a morass so deep that it faced closure or censure by the State of Minnesota, Minneapolis Public Schools and the state fire marshal within the past year.

"I asked all sorts of questions which didn't make me very popular," says Dr. Darlene Leiding, who joined the staff in August 2001 and, in January 2002, became the first licensed principal in the school's 29-year history.

In January, a representative of the state's Department of Children, Families and Learning walked into Dr. Leiding's office to report that the school was in statutory operating debt (SOD) or more than 2.5 percent over budget - 17.3 percent, to be exact. As principal and staff struggled to meet the state's January 31 deadline for a financial plan, the state fire marshal delivered a notice of violations. Close behind was the Minneapolis Public Schools, responsible for the renewal of the charter school's license, with bad news about the school's academic scores and finances.

Principal Leiding rallied the troops: the new financial director Joel Pourier, Lakota, a Heart of the Earth teacher with a master's degree in business finance; and a staff Dr. Leiding had pared by almost 30 percent to maximize personnel resources and save money.

The state's bearer of bad news rolled up his sleeves, as have other supporters from the Minneapolis Public Schools to the Minnesota Consortium for Evidence in Education, and the school is now on track for financial solvency, academic achievement and renewed trust from the American Indian community.

"The combination of people and gains is making us credible,'' says Dr. Leiding. Attendance has improved. The school is almost out of SOD. A one-year probation with Minneapolis Public Schools ends in June 2003. The new sprinkler system is in place. And a lot of fireproof sheetrock and other fire-code miracles were put in place during an all-night push by principal and staff.

Surviving the transformations from a private AIM (American Indian Movement) school to alternative school status to its current charter school designation in 1999, the school's board of directors now operates independently of Heart of the Earth Survival School, Inc. - referred to as the ''Inc. board''- which owns the property.

Principal Leiding underscores the importance of keeping the school open for its 280 kindergarten to 12th-grade students, 90 percent of whom are American Indians.

"I f you don't have an identity, you'd be lost in this world. We tell these kids, 'You're a Native American and you should be proud of it," adds Johnny Smith, Chippewa, leader of the school's Culture Program for 14 years. "I tell people, 'Visit our school. Don't listen to the rumors. We've never been sitting this good."