When you visit public schools in Northeast, you see black kids, brown kids, kids of Asian descent and a smattering of white kids. Overall, Northeast’s population is 69% white, according to Minnesota Compass, a social indicators project led by Wilder Research that tracks trends in education, economy, workforce, health, and housing. Yet Northeast’s schools are the least diverse in the city. Where have the white kids gone?
Unlike the 1970s, when court-ordered desegregation triggered white flight from Northeast to the suburbs, the current discrepancy is caused by school choice, said School Board Member Jenny Arneson at a Nov. 9 meeting at the Northeast Library.
She, along with Bridget Gernander, a Washburn High School/Justice Page Middle School parent who’s involved in an organization called Integrated Schools Minneapolis, was there to discuss the racial imbalance of the schools.
The nine parents who attended the meeting all had students in the Minneapolis system; some were at the beginning of their student’s journey, others had kids who will soon graduate. One identified herself as Latina; the rest were white. All were interested in giving their child an integrated education experience.
Overall, the Minneapolis school district’s student population is 65% persons of color, 35% white. In Northeast, student bodies tend to be 20% or less white. The availability of other options – charter schools, the proximity of Columbia Heights and St. Anthony schools – Arneson said, has contributed to this imbalance.
“North and Northeast have higher open enrollment than other parts of the city,” Arneson said. “Fifty to 60% are going to charter schools or out of the district.”
She cited some statistics: Pillsbury Elementary School, 2250 Garfield Street NE, and Yinghua Academy, 1616 Buchanan Street NE, are eight blocks apart. Just 8% of Yinghua students receive free or reduced lunches. Its student population is primarily white or Asian. At Pillsbury, 77% are on the lunch program, and 83% of the students are children of color.
New City School, 1500 6th Street NE, and Sheridan, 1201 University Avenue NE, are also within blocks of each other. Approximately one-third of New City’s students are eligible for free or reduced lunch; its non-white population is 34%. Sheridan, has a student body that’s 85% children of color, and free and reduced lunches are available to 81% of the students.
St. Anthony Middle School and Northeast Middle School are 1.4 miles apart. At Northeast, the student body is 80% non-white and 71% qualify for free and reduced lunches. Only 18% of St. Anthony’s student population receives free and reduced lunches; students of color make up one-third of its total.
“These are stark examples of segregation,” Arneson said. “The district and state cannot make planning and funding decisions when individual decisions impact school demographics.”
Because of this unintended consequence of allowing parents to choose schools – 58% of parents in the district do – Arneson said the district is taking a hard look at its placement practices. “Does school choice perpetuate inequities?” she asked.
Parents have a “winners and losers” mentality when it comes to school choice, Gernander said. In Southwest Minneapolis, there’s an overload of people who are trying to get their children into the schools they’ve heard are the best. “Many parents never tour a school to see if it’s the best fit for their child. They have a conversation on the playground with another parent and base their decision on that person’s opinion.”
“Our kids know we’re talking about them when we talk about ‘good’ and ‘bad’ schools,” Arneson said. “These little seeds affect your feelings.”
Schools that are deemed “the best” by parents often tend to have more white students, fewer low-income students, more experienced teachers and tougher course work. Gernander said, “Washburn is becoming more white. Somali moms don’t feel connected to the school.”
Gernander shared that she attended an integrated school in Minneapolis and loved it. Then her parents decided to move to the suburbs and send her to a “better school.” “I hated it,” she said. “All the kids were white like me and there was a lot of bullying.”
The conversation turned to the benefits of attending an integrated school. When schools have a diverse student population, Gernander said teachers learn how to adapt to the needs of different kids.
One mother from North Minneapolis has a child about to start school. She worried that her kindergartner could be the only white child in the class and said she felt “awful” for thinking that way. Arneson replied, “Kids are less afraid than their parents. Find the benefits in the school.”
One Edison parent said her kids don’t differentiate fellow students by race. “They see theater kids and sports kids.” She said her students were looking at more diverse colleges after graduation. “They wouldn’t feel comfortable in an all-white school.” She added, “It bothers me that there aren’t more students of color in the International Baccalaureate program. The kids in the program should reflect the student body.”
Currently, class sizes in Northeast are lower than those in the southern part of the city, in part because they’re under-populated. Sheridan, for example, has capacity for 739 students; its 2018-19 enrollment is 306. Pillsbury is down 240, Webster minus 97 and Waite Park is 71 under. Compare that with Marcy Open School, which has 22 students more than its building capacity of 706.
The Board of Education is taking a hard look at school demographics to determine how to rebalance school populations so that students have the same opportunities citywide. In its Comprehensive District Design, “We are examining placement policies, academic programs, school pathways, and financial distribution. In Northeast, currently only about 40% of students attend a Minneapolis Public School, the lowest rate in the city, so it’s especially important that we use this opportunity to critically examine our schools and school choice patterns,” Arneson wrote in an email.
The district plans to conclude its study by April 2020 and implement its changes during the 2021-22 school years.
Many neighborhoods in Minneapolis are more integrated than our schools, said Gernander. “A school building that is truly integrated balances resources with needs and you get the best outcome for all students.”
Integrated Schools Minneapolis has a guide titled “White &/or privileged parents having those Awkward Conversations about school integration.” Get it at https://integratedschools.org.