“We’ve been tinkering around the edges for 20 years.”
That’s what Minneapolis Public Schools Superintendent Ed Graff said at a recent meeting held at Northeast Middle School. We’ve got news for you, sir. The district has been “tinkering” ever since “new math” was introduced in the ‘60s.
Something has occurred in the last 40 years since the federal courts mandated integration and Minneapolis began shipping kids from one side of the city to the other. Neighborhoods have integrated on their own. Yes, North Minneapolis is still largely a “black” community, but Northeast is no longer lily-white. Call it “naturally-occurring integration (NOI).”
MPS’ Comprehensive District Design (CDD) recognizes that fact and seeks to rebalance its student population along community lines.
The move to community schools is a good thing. It not only keeps kids closer to home, but it encourages support from the neighborhood.
Neighborhood support for schools is strongly evidenced in Northeast. Last year, Waite Park parents raised $20,000 so their kids could take field trips. Parents at Edison are raising funds so all seniors can attend the class party free of charge. The Exchange Club, Italian American Club and hosts of others pour money into helping local students. It’s this kind of support that keeps schools strong.
We like that the district has actually taken a look at where kids live, how far they have to travel, and the kind of environment they travel through. Tightening up walk zones in neighborhoods that have experienced a lot of crime makes good social and environmental sense, as does shortening bus rides.
We like the idea of moving the magnet schools to the center of the city. Parents from the south and southwestern parts of Minneapolis have long had an oversized influence on the direction of the public schools. They’re crying out now that the district has opened up the possibility of closing some schools in their areas. We’ve been there . . . 40 years ago, when schools in North and Northeast were shut down and our kids climbed onto buses headed to a different part of the city.
There are a couple of elements missing in the school district’s plan, however. One is the teachers’ union. Although the district has informed them of its plans, we don’t know if they’re on board with this scheme.
Teachers have the right to “bid out” of a school when they reach a certain level of seniority. They can move to a school that has better resources, a better reputation. That often leaves younger, inexperienced teachers to deal with kids who are struggling to understand reading, writing and arithmetic. If resources (and teachers) were distributed more equally, perhaps younger teachers could be mentored by the more experienced, and everyone would be better off.
The other missing element is parents.
This is a classic and chronic problem in public education. Some parents just aren’t involved in their childrens’ education. We’re not talking about heading up the PTA. We’re talking about the simpler things, like making sure your son or daughter does his or her homework. Making sure you attend parent-teacher conferences (the number of parents who show up is disappointingly few). Attending a concert, science fair or school play shows a parent cares about their student/s. Minnesota law requires employers to allow employees up to 16 hours – per child — of unpaid leave from work to attend their child’s school conferences and activities each year. Parents need to understand their rights, employers need to honor those rights. Use that time wisely!
We’d like to suggest another way the district can involve parents in the CDD: Ask the parents, one by one, “If we do this, will you stay or leave?” Maybe moving 14,000 students, 40 percent of the school population, to different schools won’t be as disruptive as even we fear.