It was a day of countermoves Monday in the dispute over the Minneapolis school district's shift of Minnesota School of Science charter out of the district's Cityview building in north Minneapolis.
The district set up shop near the school's playground in an effort to recruit MSS students to a new school in the Cityview building that it plans will operate significantly differently from a typical district school, and more like the school it is ousting.
That prompted close to three dozen MSS supporters -- from students to board members -- to mobilize a short distance away to protest that. But much of their message was drowned out by a district generator that powered five inflatable play areas, which the district employed along with snow cone and popcorn machines to entice families. So far, parents seem to be staying loyal to the threatened charter even if it lacks a site for next year. Several last week spoke glowingly of interviews of how the school motivated their students, and drew a contrast to their previous experiences with district schools.
The MSS message was that the district should back off, consent to it switching from the district to Pillsbury United Communities as an authorizer, and give the school a year to move in an orderly fashion. The district has cancelled the charter's lease for non-payment effective the end of this month, a situation triggered by the state's ban on rent aid being paid to the district as both authorizer of the school and landlord, and the district won't release the school to another authorizer. An authorizer is required by law to oversee the school.
"It's not money. It's about egos," said MSS board member Rosilyn Carroll. "It's about adults. Ir's definitely not about children. We are caught in adult games, and it's time we stop manipulating children of color."
The district is trying to send the message that it's not trying to lure students back to the old Cityview program, which didn't produce good academic results. Rather it wants to feature the reopened schol as the first of its "partnership" schools, a new model that needs teacher union signoff to implement as the district wants. It wants those schools to feature longer days and years, more flexibility, and financial incentives for teachers.
One key feature of that program would be to recruit some of the same teachers who have signed contracts with MSS for next school year. The district said it has made offers to five of those teachers, and a major attraction for them is to stay with their students, according to Associate Superintendent Sara Paul. SMM teachers must pay a penalty to opt out of their contracts if the school continues to exist next school year, she said. But with their average salary in the $33,000 to $35,000 range, they could quickly recoup the penalty with a district stating salary of at least $39,137. Teachers who want to switch to the district won't jeopardize their status with MSS, board chairman Murat Ergen said.
The two-year-old charter school has engenedered strong loyalties from the parents of many of its more than 300 students. "It's basically our children's future that they're playing around with," said Maile Vue, mother of a kindergartner and third grader. The school engenders excitement, she said, citing one daughter. "When she's sick, she'll say, 'Go to school mama and pick up my homework.'"
By Abby Simons
The woman charged with kidnapping the 8-month old son of a friend in February has been deemed mentally competent to stand trial.
Isabel Diaz-Castillo, 30, is scheduled for a Sept. 24 Jury trial in Hennepin County District Court for a single count of felony kidnapping.
If all went according to plan, former Washburn Principal Carol Markham-Cousins was going to go out with the senior graduating class at the school's commencement earlier this month.
But plans changed somewhere between the district's confirmation that Markham-Cousins was to be on the stage and have a speaking role in the sendoff of nearly 200 seniors and the actual event.
MPLS offered Markham-Cousins a chance to explain, but she declined. According to the district, she informed superiors on the afternoon of the ceremony that she'd decided not to participate. She did take a chance to address seniors during the rehearsal for the ceremony.
Parent Margaret Richarson said she'd heard soem students were planning to make a show of protest toward Markham-Cousins to express their displeasure for her role in removing popular athletic director Dan Pratt out of that role. The district removed her after Pratt's shift to a full time phy ed teacher for next year was protested by some students, but others spoke up in her support.
Richardson said she applauded the decision of Markhame-Cousins to keep the focus of graduation on students.
School’s out for summer, but work is going on behind the scenes toward making one of Minneapolis’ most-squeezed schools less crowded for students and their teachers.
Seward Montessori School was built for fewer than 700 but holds almost 900 K-8 students and ranks close to the worst in the district for its lack of space.
“The crowding at our school is the least-conducive learning environment I’ve seen in the 23 years I’ve been a teacher in the district,” said Robert Reed.
He and three others who teach English to immigrant students share office space at one end of a classroom, behind a bank of file cabinets and a curtain. Reed often teaches groups of students in another subdivided classroom that he shares with a school psychologist, inhibiting students from the vigorous out-loud pronounciation that builds their skill.
After meeting with a parent-staff group, district planners are investigating options and hope to have a recommendation later this year.
One possibility is an addition to accommodate the current four classes per grade, as parents prefer. There are less palatable options, too. One is moving to a larger school. Or the school could cut back to three classes per grade, meaning fewer Montessori slots. Another would be to split the program, making Seward a kindergarten-fifth grade school and housing middle school Montessori elsewhere. A move or a split school would affect other schools.
The Montessori program came to Seward in 1991 after it outgrew the Northrop building, where it went only through fifth grade. The move and a 1994 addition to Seward allowed it to add middle grades. The school started at three classes per grade but a fourth class per grade was phased in starting in 2003.
It isn’t difficult to see the overcrowding because it spills into hallways. The one serving fourth- and fifth-graders typically has several groups of students working in groups on the collaborative projects that are a Montessori hallmark. Aide Emily Martin is at a hall table with anywhere from two to five students. Another table holds a couple of geraniums. A large table for robotics activities is chained to the wall because it once fell on a student; there’s no other place for it.
Two specialists are tucked into makeshift triangular offices shoehorned into opposite corners of the hallway. When a class comes through, the hallway is impassible as students weave their way around these obstacles.
“I lived in New York City and I had 600 square feet and I had a roommate,” explained Becky Tabor, who teaches English to up to five immigrant students at a time in a tiny office. “You learn how to live in smaller spaces.”
But parents are trying to get the crowding at Seward on the district’s radar. Their long-term goal is constructing more classrooms, but that could take three to five years. Shorter-term, they’re hoping to cap enrollment at closer to the building’s capacity while studying the feasibility of expansion with the district.
They’re starting to contact school board members on their space issues but some need little education. Board member Hussein Samatar’s children attend Seward, and those of Carla Bates did so. The son of another board member, Richard Mammen, works there.
The Montessori program requires specially ordered materials, and they’re stored everywhere, in copying rooms, other niches, even principal Tammy Goetz’s office.
The school runs six lunch shifts a day. Students complained last year to Supt. Bernadeia Johnson that they lacked time to finish lunch, much less get recess, so adjustments were made. Still, the first lunch starts at 9:50 a.m. and there are more than twice as many middle-schoolers, who lunch together for scheduling reasons, as there are seats. Music students wait for janitors to clean up after the last lunch before they can set up, leaving a truncated rehearsal period before they pack up to for their buses.
There are other effects. “My son says he gets a headache from the noise levels,” said Pam Berry, a parent who headed the site council’s building committee. So does Reed, who sometimes brings headphones from home.
Goetz said the goal is simple. “We’re asking for a conducive learning environment for all of our students,” she said. “Learning in the hallway is not conducive.”
Negotiations start next week for the 2013-2015 labor contract governing working conditions for the Minneapolis district’s more than 3,000 teachers for the next two school years.
Those working conditions are increasingly a target of the critics of public education who style themselves educational reformers. That in turn has prompted a backlash among some teachers who argue that reformers are carrying out a corporate agenda to take over schools.
Minneapolis Superintendent Bernadeia Johnson laid out her position in a mid-May speech in which she called for more flexibility in the union contract and in district rules for some schools that would exchange more autonomy for accountability for results.Johnson said she wants more teaching time, more freedom in hiring, and new career paths for teachers to assume leadership.
Meanwhile a union response called for smaller classes, more services to meet the needs of students, less testing, more teaching planning time, and more culturally relevant lessons. The union is planning a series of gatherings in homes with parents to discuss its agenda.
Rick Kreyer, the district’s human resources chief, will lead the district’s negotiating team, while Lynn Nordgren, president of the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers, will lead the union side.
The first two sessions are scheduled for Monday and Tuesday at the union headquarters, 67 8th Av. NE, and a third is scheduled for June 17. All three sessions are scheduled for 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Negotiating sessions are open to the public until they enter state mediation.
The current contract expires on June 30, although an ever-green clause keeps its conditions in place while a new contract is discussed. Negotiations are starting three months earlier than the September start that marked the 2011-2013 negotiations. Those discussions didn’t produce a tentative agreement until the following March.
That contract raised contract costs by 6.4 percent over the previous pact. That was mainly due to the district paying to lengthen the teaching year by four days and the non-teaching time the teacher is required to spend in school by an average of 15 minutes daily. That added $3,090 to a typical teacher paycheck next year, before increases they got for added experience and education.
Teachers voted 83 percent for that deal, an even higher proportion than the 6-2 vote by the school board for the pact. Two new board members have taken office since then.
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