When Eden Prairie's seven school board members convene Tuesday night, the controversial decision they are set to make about redrawing school boundary lines will be of keen interest throughout the metro area.
Will they back a plan that will move 1,100 elementary students next fall to new schools, largely to reduce segregation in schools? Or will they scale back in response to a huge parental outcry and make fewer changes or nix the plan altogether?
Bloomington and other metro-area suburban school districts, which also face increasingly diverse student demographics, are watching Eden Prairie's move. Bloomington's school board chair attended Eden Prairie meetings to watch how feedback was handled.
"The opportunity for Eden Prairie is to show how to be a leader in a whole new world," said state Rep. Carlos Mariani, DFL-St. Paul, who is also executive director of the Minnesota Minority Education Partnership. With growing diversity, "the old ways of how to structure schools ... aren't going to work if they're going to be successful."
In Eden Prairie, an affluent southwest suburban district with 9,700 students, redrawing boundary lines aims to balance schools that are over- or under-capacity, move fifth- and sixth-graders into what are now K-4 schools and reduce racial and socioeconomic isolation, which often go hand-in-hand.
Among elementary schools, there is a 33 percent gap in the number of students who qualify for free- or reduced-price meals. The proposed change would reduce that gap to 2 percent.
Metrowide topic of debate
In the past decade or so, districts such as St. Louis Park, Osseo and Robbinsdale have looked at integration efforts. Earlier this year, Burnsville-Eagan-Savage sought to create more racial balance, but parent opposition to moving children caused the district to scrap that specific plan.
In Bloomington, where one elementary has 80 percent low-income students and another has 15 percent, school officials are poised to make a similar boundary change Jan. 3, in part to achieve racial and socioeconomic balance.
Nowhere has the debate been more heated than Eden Prairie. Since the administration's plan was released in the fall, numerous feedback meetings have drawn large and sometimes hostile crowds who in some cases shouted down black or Somali parents who spoke in favor of the plan. Parent unhappiness with Superintendent Melissa Krull prompted hundreds to sign petitions and protest near the high school.
Last month the board, at a standing-room-only meeting, voted to essentially take the decisionmaking authority on the changes from Krull and make the decision Tuesday night. Last week administrators presented the board with a 123-page document with evidence supporting the plan.
The role played by race
Myron Orfield, a University of Minnesota law professor, has advocated for integration efforts at many Twin Cities schools. He has spoken in favor of Eden Prairie's plan and was booed by some parents at meetings.
"This is a big decision for the school board and for the region -- whether we're going to have racially integrated school districts," Orfield said. ''The implications [if the proposed plan fails] will be that there are a group of white racist parents who can stop integration in schools."
Many Eden Prairie parents who disagree with the boundary change plan are adamant that their stand isn't about race. They say they don't oppose integration, but they disagree with a plan that moves students away from neighborhood schools.
School leaders and other supporters argue that integrating schools will decrease the achievement gap and benefit all students. They say integration efforts are needed in increasingly diverse suburban communities.
As the number of students of color grows in Minnesota schools, the number of white students remains stagnant. The number of segregated schools in the metro -- those with non-white and poor students making up 75 percent of the student population -- jumped from nine to 109 schools from 1992 to 2002.
"It's inevitable that other districts will be faced with similar challenges," Krull said. "We all are faced with an opportunity ... to think about how to best serve students in our school."
Kelly Smith • 612-673-4141