There are two different stories that can be told about Cedar Park Elementary STEM School in the Rosemount-Apple Valley-Eagan district — and both are true.
The first is that it's the district's only school deemed "racially identifiable" by the Minnesota Department of Education. Since receiving this designation in 2004, the Apple Valley school's demographics haven't budged, despite several plans to try to balance out the school's high concentration of students of color.
A school is said to be racially identifiable if its percentage of students of color is more than 20 percent higher than similar district schools, in this case elementary schools. At Cedar Park, 56 percent of students are minorities, compared to the district average of about 34 percent.
But there's another story, too, one that John Garcia, Cedar Park's principal, prefers to focus on. In his mind, the school is a success. "We're reversing the trends, we're off AYP (the list of schools not making adequate Annual Yearly Progress on standardized tests), and we're working super hard to build the community that's coming through the door," Garcia said. "I think we're being very successful."
Successful or not, the district will still be required to formulate a new plan this spring to address the racial disparities, and it will get state funding to help carry it out.
One of the district's plans to balance out the school's demographics turned Cedar Park into a STEM magnet in 2006. That change has been positive, Garcia said, and has had "huge implications. It really kind of revolutionized our school's image … ."
When he became principal in 2007, the school had 535 students. Now, there are 709, with a waiting list of 80. About 40 percent of students come from outside Cedar Park's attendance areas, drawn in by the STEM focus. The number of students receiving free and reduced lunch also has decreased slightly, he said, from about 52 percent in 2007 to 47 percent, he said.
On this year's MCA science tests, the school's scores rank seventh out of 18 district grade schools — and on reading and math tests, it's not doing poorly, either, Garcia said.
People might predict that a school with 50 percent of students in poverty and the district's highest concentration of minority students would be at the bottom in terms of standardized test scores, Garcia said. "But we're changing that trend, where you cannot find us at the bottom."
Making a new plan
When the state says a school is racially identifiable, the district must create a plan to address the concentration of students of color, said Stacy Wells, the district's integration and educational equity coordinator. That plan is approved by the school board, but the state neither approves nor disapproves of it, Wells said.
District 196 is beginning the three-year process of creating a new plan, Wells said, with the help of a Community Collaboration Council, made up of district staff and residents.
While another district school — Glacier Hills — was deemed racially identifiable in 2004, that school is now off the list, Wells said. However, "Cedar Park has remained that way since the beginning," she said.
Much of the school's demographics is out of the district's control, because of its location and proximity to affordable housing, Wells said.
So, is being a racially identifiable school a problem? It depends who you ask.
"I think when a school is identified … still some of the language that's used around it can seem sort of negative, and like it's a bad thing," Wells said.
Historically, segregated schools have been problematic because of a link to achievement and equity issues. That's why the district is "always really mindful of it," Wells said.
"But the other thing is, honestly, that people like that school … That's sort of a trend, actually, in district 196," she said. It wouldn't be right to tell families of color they have to leave a school they like, she added.
The state and district are becoming more diverse, and schools with Cedar Park's demographics are now more common, Garcia said.
Currently, two other district schools — Echo Park and Oak Ridge — are almost racially identifiable and may receive the state's designation soon.
A new state law will make districts more accountable for actually changing the demographics of racially isolated schools, rather than just making plan after plan, Wells said.
Wells said she'd like to think district leadership is ready to take "a hard, serious look at a systemwide change," she said. "There's been a plan in place, and it's a great plan, and we've seen some movement. But it's not enough and we need to do more."