For the second straight year, low-income students in the Minneapolis Public Schools fared better than the ones who were bused to suburban schools under the Choice is Yours, a voluntary desegregation program.

Minneapolis students in the district nearly doubled their test scores in reading and finished practically even in math compared with their suburban counterparts last year, according to results released Monday by the Minnesota Department of Education.

State education officials reasoned that the difference may be because the suburban choice students tested each year are not the same students; only half of the suburban choice students were enrolled in their schools the previous year.

However, Minneapolis officials say their students' results are significant enough to start urging parents to think twice about sending their kids to suburban schools.

"We're just saying if the number one reason parents sent their kids to suburban schools was academics, they need to look closely and carefully at the results," said Dave Heistad, the district's research and testing director. "Just choice by itself doesn't seem to be the answer."

"This illustrates what we have always suspected," said Minneapolis Superintendent Bill Green. "Whatever frustration people have felt about the Minneapolis schools is based on a sense that we have so much potential and we haven't been able to mine it.

"This data shows that kids don't have to go far away from home to get a quality education," Green said.

Assistant Education Commissioner Karen Klinzing said Monday the results do not "raise a red flag at this point" because the program still provides access for low-income Minneapolis students to attend suburban schools.

The Choice is Yours program is the result of a 2000 settlement after the Minneapolis NAACP sued the state alleging that Minneapolis students were being denied an adequate education. Nearly 5,000 students have participated in the program since 2001, but nearly 80 percent have not returned since it started.

The report said 2,080 students use the Choice is Yours to go to school in the nine suburban school districts -- Columbia Heights, Edina, Hopkins, Richfield, Robbinsdale, St. Anthony, St. Louis Park, Wayzata and Eden Prairie -- in the West Metro Education Program (WMEP).

As of late January, one-fourth of those attended Robbinsdale schools (507), followed by Hopkins (307), Columbia Heights (284) and Wayzata (256), according to state statistics. More than half of the participants are black and live in north Minneapolis.

For the comparison, students in third through seventh grade were tested in reading and math using the Northwest Achievement Level tests. The groups were nearly identical in demographic characteristics.

This is the third year the comparative test results have been released. Minneapolis students who attended suburban schools outperformed district students during the 2004-05 school year. The following year, district students did better than their suburban peers.

This time, district students did better than suburban students at every grade level in reading. The district cites early childhood and after-school programs as two reasons for the rise.

Daniel Jett, WMEP superintendent, also was pleased with the results. "All students subject to the [Choice is Yours] study are showing gains and that's a good thing," he said.

He also cited a recent survey that said 96 percent of parents whose children participate would recommend the program to others.

Minneapolis schools officials view Monday's findings as a positive sign at a time when enrollment is dropping -- partly because of the Choice is Yours -- and its schools are launching academic reforms to win back students and their families.

"We still have a lot of work left to be done," said Heistad, who hopes that students will perform well on state tests this spring.

A full report can be read at

Terry Collins • 612-673-1790