From classroom trends to school board decisions, Class Act will keep you updated on all the school issues followed by the Star Tribune’s education reporters. Contributors include Alejandra Matos, who covers Minneapolis; Kim McGuire, who covers the west metro; Erin Adler, who covers the south metro; Anthony Lonetree and Libor Jany, who cover St. Paul and the east metro, and Shannon Prather, who cover the north metro.

Federal complaint alleges Minneapolis school routinely violates special education students' rights

Posted by: Kim McGuire Updated: March 26, 2015 - 5:01 PM

Attorneys for the Community Justice Project at the University of St. Thomas filed a complaint last week with federal civil rights officials that accuses a Minneapolis school of routinely violating the rights of special education students.

The complaint states that Minneapolis Public Schools' Harrison Education Center fails to provide adequate instruction to its students and segregates them from the district's students who don't have disabilities. The complaint requests a federal investigation.

Harrison currently serves high school students with severe emotional and behavioral disorders. The vast majority of students who attend the school are black.

The complaint, filed with the U.S. Department of Justice's Civil Rights Division, recounts the story of a 16-year-old boy who was sent to Harrison after he was involved in a fight. Upon enrolling at Harrison, the boy, "J.G" observed frequent fights and said little was taught in the classroom.

"He also states that students are constantly disciplined with suspensions, both in-school and out of school," the complaint states. "Though Harrison punishes its students for minor infractions, J.G remembers a staff member hypocritically and openly recounted his drinking stories with a minor students."

District officials said Thursday they had not received official notice of the complaint from federal justice officials.

"Our standard procedure when receiving complaints is to respond swiftly and cooperate thoroughly with the inquiring agency," said Rachel Hicks, a district spokeswoman.

The district is currently considering making significant changes at Harrison, which has long been accused of being dumping ground for troubled students.

Those changes include "excessing" all of the school's teachers and other staff members and allowing them to reapply for newly redesigned positions. The process is known as a "fresh start" and has been used in the past with some of the district's struggling schools. The board is expected to take up the issue at is April meeting.

Nekima Levy-Pounds, director of the Community Justice Project and co-founder of Black Advocates for Education, said the district needs to made "drastic" changes at Harrison or consider closing it.

"Minor tweaks are not going to get it," she said.

Levy-Pounds urged the district to take a hard look at its special education referrals as many of the students who end up at Harrison - students like J.G. - don't deserve to be there.

"I am glad they are considering a fresh start process but they are going to have to really dig deep to make sure what they come up with is not a Band Aid solution," she said.  

Farmington principal elected to top job of national organization

Posted by: Erin Adler Updated: March 26, 2015 - 1:22 PM

The National Association of Elementary School Principals has elected Steven Geis, principal at North Trail Elementary in the Farmington district, to serve as president-elect beginning July 1. A year later, he will assume the role of president.

Geis has served on the organization's board of directors since 2012. He has also been a leader with the Minnesota Elementary School Principals Association (MESPA) and the Farmington Principals Association.

He has won several awards, such as a MESPA Leadership Award and a 2008 Japanese Memorial Fulbright Scholarship.

In 1993, he began his career as a middle school social studies teacher in Lake Elmo and moved to take a position at Farmington Middle School a year later. He worked his way up at the school, eventually being named associate principal and then principal. He has been principal at North Trail since 2005 while also working as a professor at St. Mary's University of Minnesota.

The National Association of Elementary School Principals is a professional organization serving elementary and middle school principals and others throughout the United States, Canada and abroad.

SPA debate team to go for glory in NYC

Posted by: Anthony Lonetree Updated: March 26, 2015 - 12:46 PM

Students at St. Paul Academy and Summit School are headed to New York City in May to debate the subject of government surveillance on an international stage.

The team recently advanced to the "Elite 8" finals of the International Public Policy Forum -- a competition pitting high school students from around the world in written and oral public-policy debates.

SPA made its way to the finals by defeating three schools -- Kerr High in Houston, Tex.; Albuquerque Academy in Albuquerque, N.M.; and St. John's-Ravenscourt School in Winnipeg, Manitoba -- in single-elimination contests requiring the volleying of written positions via email.

Panels of judges reviewed the essays and selected winning teams.

Now, the SPA team, comprised of seniors Shaan Bijwadia, Jordan Hughes, Afsar Sandozi and Thomas Toghramadjian, must stake their position in oral debates in the May 2 finals at The Harold Pratt House, 58 E. 68th St. at Park Avenue, in New York. The winning team collects a $10,000 grand prize.

The event is sponsored by the Bickel & Brewer Foundation and New York University.

Last fall, the competition began with 243 teams submitting qualifying-round essays on the topic: "Resolved: Mass surveillance is not a justified method of governmental intelligence gathering."

The Elite 8 will be an all-U.S. field. But, in the "Sweet 16," there were teams not just from Canada, but also from Singapore, Taiwan and the Czech Republic.

William A. Brewer III, a partner in the Bickel & Brewer law firm, said: "The St. Paul Academy and Summit School team has demonstrated an excellent command of a very complex and timely topic."

This year marks the first that SPA has advanced past the "Top 32" in the event -- now in its 14th year.

Wayzata High School's principal to take over at Oakwood Elementary

Posted by: Kim McGuire Updated: March 26, 2015 - 12:17 PM

Mike TrewickWayzata High School Principal Mike Trewick is taking over the helm of Oakwood Elementary, a school still reeling from the unexpected loss of Principal Dennis Grasmick.

Grasmick, affectionately known at Oakwood as Mr. G, committed suicide on March 10. He was 61.

The district had previously announced that Trewick would be transitioning out of his role at the high school. Last year, t   he district hired Scott Gengler, formerly principal of Irondale High School, to oversee the construction of the new high school addition and eventually replace Trewick.

In addition to his experience at the high school, Trewick was previously principal at Birchview Elementary and East Middle School during his 19 years in the district.  He also served as an elementary principal in another school district prior to the start of his work in Wayzata. 

For the remainder of this school year, Trewick will spend time at both Oakwood and the high school.  To support his work, Sara Gammack, resource teacher who has been providing temporary support at Oakwood, will be at Oakwood when Trewick is at high school.  He will assume full-time principal duties at Oakwood for the 2015-16 school year.

"Mike will provide excellent leadership for Oakwood staff, students and parents," Wayzata Superintendent Chace Anderson wrote in a letter to Oakwood parents. "He is a caring and compassionate principal and is looking forward to working with the Oakwood community."

Layoffs begin today at Minneapolis Public Schools' administration office

Posted by: Kim McGuire Updated: March 23, 2015 - 12:40 PM

Minneapolis Public Schools is set to lay off about 120 administrative staffers today, a move expected to redirect about $11.6 million back into district schools.

District officials have not said which positions located at the Davis Service Center will be cut.

In a letter sent to parents and others Monday, interim superintendent Michael Goar said the cuts were necessary for the district to make the kind of investments it has established as top budgetary priorities: reducing class sizes in non-high priority schools, reducing special education caseloads and providing additional instruction time for middle and high school students.

"To support and adequately fund these important investments, we conducted rigorous and careful analysis to identify areas of savings and investment within the Davis Center. We need to streamline and redefine the way we work in order to ensure that students and schools have the funds they need," Goar wrote.

District spokeswoman Rachel Hicks told the Star Tribune on Saturday that laid-off workers will be encouraged to apply for positions opening at schools, with the intention of “returning those very talented people to the classroom.”

Staff members will be notified that their positions are eliminated this week but will be able to stay in their seats through the end of June. Layoffs will likely affect all aspects of the staff, Hicks said.

All of the district’s schools will receive a piece of the redirected funding in the form of discretionary dollars, but the money will not be evenly distributed. Breakdowns are expected to be released in coming weeks, Hicks said.

Goar announced his plans to downsize the administrative office Feb. 2 — the day he took over for Bernadeia Johnson.

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