Fifty years after the federal courts ordered busing to force integration of Minneapolis’ public schools and tore the social fabric of neighborhoods throughout the city, Minneapolis Public Schools is considering a return to community schools.
At a listening session held at Northeast Middle School Jan. 27, district leaders outlined five different models they are considering for a district-wide overhaul intended to provide educational equity throughout the school system. For now, the Comprehensive District Design concentrates on students in kindergarten to grade 8.
The presentation by Superintendent Ed Graff; Eric Moore, chief of accountability, research and equity; Karen DeVet, chief operations officer; Rochelle Cox, assistant superintendent for special education; and Dr. Aimee Fearing, chief of academics, kept more than 200 parents in their seats for nearly two hours.
Graff started out with a statistical shocker: There’s a greater than 50% chance that students of color don’t get the educational support they need in Minneapolis Public Schools, and two-thirds of the student population is made up of students of color. He said, “I have to do something different. Eighty percent of the students who leave Minneapolis schools are students of color.”
The first model would maintain the status quo, with some boundary reconfigurations, a couple of school closures, limiting entrance to popular, over-populated schools such as Marcy Open, and limiting federal dollars to schools with high concentrations of impoverished students.
The remaining four models would be variations on a theme that brings back community schools, concentrates magnet schools in the center of the city and re-draws boundaries for some:
• Strategically place magnet schools in center of district for equitable access to innovative and integrated magnet programming
• Decrease number of schools with populations above 80% poverty to support academic achievement and equity.
• Decrease number of schools with populations above 86% students of color or white to support integrated learning
• Provide structure that supports well-rounded education for all students
Enabling access and opportunity
By returning to community/neighborhood schools, the school district wants to keep students closer to home. It also hopes to bring back something that’s been missing since “deseg” went into effect in 1971: Community support for the schools. Making schools the heart of the community once again is one of Fearing’s goals. “When the community embraces the school, it becomes the pillar of the community,” she said.
Community schools would also help rebalance student populations in terms of numbers and racial makeup. Pillsbury, Sheridan and Webster are currently under capacity. Reconfiguration would decrease the number of under-populated schools by shifting students to less crowded buildings.
Special education students, instead of being scattered throughout the district, would be clustered in designated schools, where they would all have more access to the services they need, while being part of a larger student body.
Six out of 20 schools in the city are considered “racially identifiable,” which means a predominance of one race (in Minneapolis, that can mean either black or white). With a move to community schools, Pillsbury and Sheridan would come off that list. “Some schools are more segregated than the communities,” observed Fearing.
Focus on the basics
MPS has already made curriculum changes that place a higher emphasis on academics. Kids in grades K-2 are already learning mathematical principles, and the district expects all students to be well on their way to reading proficiency by grade 3. Fearing called the achievement gap “unacceptable” and said that in some K-8 schools, only 16% of students of color are proficient in math.
Reducing, moving magnet schools
Currently, magnet schools — schools with a “theme” or special emphasis such as science/technology or the arts — are clustered in the southern part of the city, making it difficult for students from North and Northeast to reach them. MPS would level the playing field by grouping magnet schools in the center of the city. By reducing the number of elementary magnets from 12 to seven and increasing middle school magnets from one to three, the district hopes to save up to 20% — $5 million — on transportation costs. (Busing costs MPS $42 million annually.) Fewer schools would mean more money could be spent on specialized instruction at the magnets, such as a 20-hour art residency at each school, or job shadowing at a STEM school.
No more K-8s
MPS has found it cannot give middle schoolers in a K-8 program the same type of education it gives students in a 6-8 middle school. “What school choice means for students is that one K-8 school may not have enough staffing to support a health teacher,” noted Cox.
In the new scheme of things, Sheridan, which has a high number of Hispanic families in its area, would become a Spanish dual immersion magnet, dropping its arts program. It would remain a K-5 school. Marcy Open School would go from K-8 to K-5 and become an arts magnet.
Reducing “walk zones”
When it comes to how far students have to walk, Minneapolis Public Schools are well within state guidelines, which specify that students in elementary and middle school grades should walk no more than half a mile, and high schoolers up to a mile before buses must be supplied. Minneapolis “walk zones” generally are half what the state statute allows.
The district worked with its transportation providers to study boundaries and would reconfigure some walk zones. In most low-income neighborhoods, and especially those with a higher incidence of crime, walk zones would be smaller. In Northeast, Waite Park’s walk zone remains unchanged, while Webster’s would shrink by nearly half, according to draft versions produced after the boundary study.
Bus rides for elementary students would be shortened to a maximum of 25-30 minutes. Middle schoolers might have a slightly longer ride, because the schools they attend cover a larger area. High school students receive bus passes for Metro Transit buses.
“Bell times,” or school starting times would also change for some students. MPS currently has five different start times for elementary and middle school students. Under the four proposed options, they would be reduced to three.
Back to vocational education?
The panel also touched on a program or “pathway,” Career and Technical Education, for high school students. It’s not the bookkeeping or auto mechanics courses of the ‘60s and ‘70s, but more like a prep school that gets students ready for a state technical or community college or a four-year university. This program is already in effect at Edison, where students can explore business enterprises, personal care and services (beauty, wellness, pharmaceutical) or technology and multi-media.
Who changes schools?
Although the plans don’t spell out specifically which schools would be affected most, it’s expected that more than 14,000 – approximately 40% of the district’s student population – would change schools. Of those, 61% (slightly more than 8,500) would be eligible for free or reduced lunch. English language learners (about 23%) would be among the movers. Just over 650 homeless or highly mobile students would also change schools, as would 2,100 special education students. Students of color would make up 70% of the 14,000, and white students, 30%.
The numbers left a few parents in the audience a little breathless. They submitted written questions after the presentations.
One asked what the district was doing to stem the flow of students to charter schools. Graff replied, “MPS has moved away from authorizing charters. We have to have community support for our schools,” said Graff. He added, “We can’t do this on our own.”
Another asked what the district was doing to make sure the interests of Northeast and North schools weren’t “drowned out” by more affluent schools in South and Southwest Minneapolis. Graff responded, “It’s really important to look at this holistically. We need to make sure we are providing what is right for all our students. We’ve spent years tinkering around the edges, protecting programs and not making a difference.”
At the School Board Committee of the Whole meeting the following night, the board of directors listened to the panel’s presentation.
Board member Jenny Arneson spoke about two focus groups she held with parents from North and Northeast. “’It’s so obvious that white schools have more resources at Minneapolis Public Schools,’” she quoted one parent. Another told her, “We don’t understand what magnet schools are, because they don’t exist for us here.”
Parents from south side schools who attended the meeting voiced their disapproval. They were backed up by school board member Bob Walser, who represents downtown, Lake of the Isles neighborhoods and Bryn Mawr. He was answered by at-large member Kimberly Caprini, who represents the north side.
“In the last ten years, we have lost so many families,” she said. “Where are the middle class black families? They left.” She said the district has spent 20 years – the entire time she has had children in the school system – changing plans, changing superintendents and cutting programs.
She said whenever the district has tried to make changes, parents show up and try to stop change because their children will be affected.
“Guess what?” she said. “A lot of you sitting in this room, your child has never been affected. I had to rub two rocks together to make sure my children had opportunities that I couldn’t afford. One of these models works. Those of you who can supplement your child’s education have to realize that you are going to have to make some sacrifices. But not the most vulnerable.”
MPS faces a budget shortfall of $19.6 million for the 2020-21 school year. The final plan will be presented to the Board of Education in March. They will vote on it April 10. It would go into effect in Fall 2021. To learn more about the Comprehensive District Design, visit https://mpls.k12.mn.us/cdd.
Below: The number of magnet schools, marked by darker dots on the map to the left, would be smaller, but schools closer to the center of the city would be reworked into magnets so they are more equally accessible to students throughout the city. Sheridan’s walk zone (shown by the dotted lines) would be cut in half so kids wouldn’t have to cross busy University Avenue on foot. Source: Minneapolis Public Schools