With years of collaborative efforts failing to make a dent in the racial imbalance between the Lakeville and Burnsville-Eagan-Savage school districts, changes in state law are allowing them to shift more of their focus onto the achievement gap between white and nonwhite students.

The collaboration also will be subject to closer state scrutiny and will be required to demonstrate measurable results.

A new integration plan aims to encourage students to interact more often through summer academic programs and better train teachers and staff in how to connect with an increasingly diverse student body. It's the third such plan the districts have created together since Burnsville was first identified as "racially isolated" by the Department of Education in 2006.

Because the two adjacent districts have more than a 20 percentage-point difference in their percentage of students of color, both are eligible to receive additional state funding if they band together to address integration issues.

Over the eight years that the districts have worked together as a Multi-District Collaborative Council, that disparity has increased, growing from 21 percentage points to 28. Lakeville now has 16 percent students of color and Burnsville has 44 percent. That's despite programs such as new magnet schools that were designed to get students from one district to voluntarily enroll in the other.

This time, however, the plans will receive more oversight from the Department of Education. Thanks to legislation passed last year, Minnesota districts receiving integration funding face more scrutiny than ever, as do their integration plans.

"In the past I will acknowledge that these plans were not heavily scrutinized," said Rose Hermodson, Assistant Commissioner at the Minnesota Department of Education. "There was not the evaluation aspect that was ever really implemented … and we are clearly going to do more in relation to holding districts accountable."

If the plans do not produce measurable results, the state may eventually withhold funding and implement strategies that they choose, said Rep. Carlos Mariani, DFL-St. Paul, who previously served as chairman of the E-12 Education Policy Committee.

In addition, this year's plans have another goal. Rather than just encouraging students to mingle across district lines, the plans must promote integration while also increasing academic achievement and reducing the achievement gap, Mariani said.

With the new law, "interracial contact is still vitally important," he said. "But frankly it makes no sense for Minnesotans to invest in integration programs that don't produce academic achievement."

The new integration legislation was passed after a task force convened to discuss how the old rules could be improved.

"The number one focus was on accountability so we could measure the progress in closing the achievement gap," said Bob Erickson, a member of that task force and the Lakeville school board.

In the past, integration funding and its hefty price tag — more than $100 million a year — have been criticized by legislators for not making a dent in concentrations of students of color in certain districts.

In addition to having a collaborative plan, both Lakeville and Burnsville must create their own larger strategic integration plan. About $130,000 from each district's integration funding goes to the collaborative plan, a fraction of the total each receives. This year and next, Lakeville will receive about $1.2 million from the state and Burnsville will get $1.7 million.

Strategies for success?

In their two previous plans, Burnsville and Lakeville tried many strategies to encourage students from their districts to interact with one another. The results have been mixed.

The plans resulted in the creation of STEM and gifted and talented magnet programs in Burnsville, cultural liaisons, and teacher training on how to work with students from diverse cultures, said Cindy Amoroso, assistant superintendent in Burnsville.

Barb Knudsen, Lakeville's director of teaching and learning, mentioned academic summer camps and a social justice class with Lakeville and Burnsville teens. Both had positive results, she said.

But while the magnet programs "have been very successful within our district," they didn't attract much new enrollment from Lakeville, said Jim Schmid, Burnsville's board chairman.

New ideas and strategies

The new Burnsville and Lakeville plan, created using input from 50 community members who met over several months, is largely focused on improving academic achievement, especially among students of color and those receiving free and reduced lunch.

To that end, the plan proposes creating a summer literacy program for students from underrepresented groups, and professional development opportunities in how to best teach students from other cultures and encourage educational equity.

Schmid believes one of the plan's innovative features is identifying students who need extra help and directing them to summer programs. But, "One of the biggest challenges is you can't … force kids to take advantage of [programs] over the summer," he said.

While Burnsville and Lakeville have already completed their plan and both school boards approved it, the state can send plans back for revision if their goals don't align with the new legislation or the metrics for measuring success aren't specific enough, Hermodson said.