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Lew Remele: From the courtroom to the classroom

Doug Hovelson//July 10, 2018

Lew Remele: From the courtroom to the classroom

Doug Hovelson//July 10, 2018

Young scholars at the Prodeo Academy read together in a study group. (Submitted photo: Prodeo Academy)
Young scholars at the Prodeo Academy read together in a study group. (Submitted photo: Prodeo Academy)

He’s not exactly riding off into the sunset, but famed Minneapolis attorney Lew Remele, after more than 40 years of practice, says he may have tried his last big case.

If so, he’s leaving that part of the law on a high note: His last big case saw him serving as co-lead counsel for the plaintiffs in a class-action lawsuit that earned a $1.5 billion settlement against Swiss agribusiness giant Syngenta. U.S. corn farmers sued Syngenta, claiming that the company negligently marketed Viptera corn seed, causing an international trade dispute.

If Remele’s plans to down-shift on the litigation side hold up, he’ll have more time to spend as a volunteer educator and advocate for better educational opportunities for Minnesota schoolchildren.

His passion for education expresses itself in his support for a small but fast-growing Minneapolis charter school, Prodeo Academy. The Academy provides free, individualized instruction for schoolchildren primarily at risk of finding themselves on the wrong side of the state’s education achievement gap.

Prodeo — the name stems from a Latin word, translated as “to advance” or “go forward” — enrolled 470 students this past school year. It opened its doors in 2013 with a small, three-classroom kindergarten school housed at a church in a northeast suburb, but now occupies larger space in north Minneapolis. The north Minneapolis space is filling up quickly, as the school will add both a fifth grade and a pre-K class this fall, growing enrollment to about 600 students.

The school aims to add one new grade per year, keeping pace with its most senior group of students, and will continue to grow up through Grade 8. The academy plans to add a Minneapolis middle school in time for the 2019-2020 school year. It is also opening its first school in St. Paul this fall, at 510 Rose St., a North End space owned by The Church of St. Bernard.

Minnesota’s shockingly wide achievement gap begs for immediate attention and resolution, according to Remele, a shareholder at Bassford Remele in Minneapolis and one of the state’s most consistently lauded attorneys over the past two decades. Remele is rarin’ to take on the challenge of closing the achievement gap in Minnesota — and may be taking more time to do just that. “I’m starting to wind down my practice,” he says. “I am looking forward to doing more volunteer work in education.”

“Education is just too important” to be left undone, especially at this critical time in society’s development when even most entry-level jobs require some form of advanced training, he says. Too many kids in Minnesota schools, and especially those in the state’s two largest urban school districts, Minneapolis and St. Paul, are not getting the kind of education that will let them compete for good jobs and/or help them move on to college.

The achievement gap just perpetuates poverty, unemployment and other problems, he says.

Minnesota’s achievement gap ranking is among the nation’s worst, with the Minneapolis and St. Paul school districts making particularly bad showings.

“It’s appalling,” Remele says. That it’s happening here, in Minnesota, where education is so highly prized, is perplexing, to say the least. “Solving the problem has to start at the grass-roots level,” he says. Reaching the kids most in danger of falling into the achievement gap requires early intervention, too, he says. Studies have shown the importance of reaching kids with an early intervention strategy by the fourth grade, before they get caught up in anti-social behaviors that become ever harder to change as the years go by.

“We’ve got to break the vicious cycle,” he says, and it starts with busting the achievement gap once and for all.

So when an opportunity presented itself for him to join a startup Minnesota charter school with the big ambition of solving the achievement gap in time to help today’s generation of schoolchildren, Remele’s ears perked up. The school needed volunteer tutors and board members. Remele figured he would enjoy tutoring young kids in the basics of math and reading — and he did. But the school needed some heavyweight help at the board level, too. He wound up joining the board, serving now as board secretary. At first, he wasn’t sure what skills a trial lawyer such as himself could bring to a school.

“Our firm just does trial work. We don’t pretend to be a general practice firm,” he says. As it turned out, the school did need some basic legal help, which Remele and his firm could manage easily enough.

What most caught his attention at Prodeo was its commitment to close that all-too-stubborn achievement gap in the shortest time possible.

The schools’ two founders, Rick Campion and Chancey Anderson, both impressed Remele as having done their homework prior to starting up the school. Before launching their academy, “They went around the country studying best practices at schools” that were innovative and producing amazing results, he says.

Prodeo aims to be a high-performing charter school, focused on erasing the achievement gap.

Charter schools in Minnesota receive state funding, but at 75 percent of the level of public schools, says Remele. In practice, the shortfall in funding forced Prodeo to creatively address its staffing situation. The solution involves the extensive use of volunteer tutors that the school can draw upon for classroom support for its paid teaching staff.

“Tutors are key to the system,” says Anderson, principal of the school. Tutors work two hours a session, one to two days per week, says Anderson.

Tutors work closely with kids at the earliest levels — pre-K, kindergarten and first-grade level, she says, to help build up early reading and math skills among the students. Thanks to the tutor corps, now numbering about 100, the school can deliver truly individualized learning for the students, she says.

“We teach the kids at their grade level,” she explains. “If they are struggling, we can provide intervention” such as tutors. Tutors work with kids primarily in small groups now, but “we’re moving to one-to-one tutoring” next year, with the involvement of 40-50 tutors a week, she says.

The school’s success in combating the ill affects of the achievement gap appears to be first class. Pre-kindergarteners show a 90-percentile improvement in reading and math development, says Anderson. Numbers like those show how effective the small charter school is at helping children from low-income and minority, primarily black, families “catch up” with their white suburban counterparts.

Prodeo within a year has these kids reading at or above the national average, says Remele.

Nearly all the kids at Prodeo’s Minneapolis school, located at 620 Olson Memorial Highway, near the intersection of Lyndale Avenue North on the city’s near-northside, qualify under federal poverty guidelines for programs such as free breakfast and lunch. The school starts, in fact, with breakfast at 7:10 a.m.

The morning chant takes place at 7:30 a.m. — time when students are reminded of why they are at school. Hint: it’s not just to pass the time. No, these kids are notably aware of their situations, and understand how important it is for them to pay attention to their teachers and tutors. It’s not uncommon for staff to encourage students — the school actually calls them “scholars” — to exclaim, “I’m part of the achievement gap — and I’m going to solve it!” says Remele.

“They’re all like little sponges, taking it all in,” he says of the Prodeo student body.

“That is such a powerful way to put it,” says Campion, the academy’s executive director. Turning on the learning spigot for the student-scholars “is such a big ingredient” to what the academy seeks to accomplish, he says.

The Prodeo way sets high expectations for kids, and provides the support that kids need to meet those expectations. It’s not all by the book, either. Studies show that kids need positive adult involvement in their lives if they are to succeed.

“They want to know they are loved and believed in by adults in their lives,” Campion says.  “When that happens, the kids can unlock what’s inside themselves. They can get access to their talents, once they have been believed in by caring adults.”

Tutors play an essential role in that process of expressing belief in the abilities of the young Prodeo scholars, he adds.

With Remele setting the example, Bassford Remele lawyers have stepped up to tutor in admirable numbers.

“We have 10, 11 lawyers from the firm serving as volunteer tutors at Prodeo,” says Remele. The firm promotes pro bono work but leaves it to individuals to make their own choices about what type of pro bono activities they involve themselves in, he says.

The operative phrase at Prodeo is to do “what’s best for the kids,” says Remele.

“It’s rare to hear ‘what’s best for the kids’” in many of the debates and dialogues about education, locally and nationally, today, says Remele. Putting kids first again “is why I got involved with Prodeo,” he says.

He finds inspiration for his educational work in David Osborne’s recently published, “Reinventing America’s Schools: Creating a 21st Century Education System.” Osborne, whose 1992 book, “Reinventing Government,” helped set the tone for the Clinton administration years, reports on the astonishing improvement in student academic achievement in New Orleans post-Hurricane Katrina. In the aftermath of the hurricane, the city turned its entire public-school system over to charter schools, he writes.

“Most problems with school systems come from entrenched interests,” says Remele. When he looks at Prodeo, he sees just that one primary interest — to educate the young, especially those kids who are at the greatest risk, through no fault of their own, of failing.

Someone once suggested to him that an apt description of a trial lawyer was as someone who runs into a wall at 90 miles an hour, and then gets up and does it again. The wall-banging ways of a trial lawyer might be just the ticket to help Prodeo Academy gain ground in its efforts to grow its network of achievement-gap-smashing charter schools.

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