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.'"
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.”
A Minneapolis education assistant has been put on a year’s probation and remains on unpaid leave after bringing a loaded handgun to Seward Montessori School the week after school shootings grabbed national attention in December.
The district identified the aide who brought the .357 Magnum gun to the school as Kathleen E. Scozzari, in response to a Star Tribune data practices law request. She is a 21-year district employee.
The 59-year-old northeast Minneapolis resident has been on leave without pay from her $19.90 per hour job since the Dec. 19 incident, in which her gun was recovered from her locked locker in a staff room. The incident occurred a week after the mass school shootings in Newton, Conn.
“She was immediately cooperative. She explained her motives to the police right away," said attorney Sarah MacGillis, who represented Scozzari. "Her principal concern was protecting the students.”
McGillis said that Scozzari pled guilty under a misdemeanor portion of the law generally banning dangerous weapons from schools as a felony. That's because she had a permit to carry a gun. Adults who have a state permit to carry a gun may bring the firearm to school only with written permission from a principal or other school authority.
Scozzari pleaded guilty to possession of a dangerous weapon in Hennepin County District Court last month. In addition to the probation, she was given a sentence of five days of community service. But MacGillis said Scozzari's conviction wil be vacated if she successfully completes probation.
According to the district, a final disposition hasn’t been reached in its investigation of her and she remains a district employee, although she is not on active status. Star Tribune calls to her household for comment were hung up on.
More recently, police were reported to be still investigating a May incident in which a firearm brought to Bethune Community School discharged on school grounds.
Don't bother showing up for summer school with the Minneapolis school district if you're not enrolled in a district school or a charter school located in Minneapolis.
That's the new dictum from Superintendent Bernadeia Johnson after she discovered that the district loses $200,000 educating non-district students. That's because it doesn't get state reimbursement for those students. At most, roughly 300 K-7 students would be affected based on preliminary counts, plus an undetermined number of high school students.
"I guess we could charge a fee for that," Johnson mused when she announced the change Tuesday evening.
Johnson at first said that no non-district students would be admitted to summer schol, but the district amended that Wednesday when it discovered the law reimburses summer school students from Minneapolis-based charters. District officials said they weren't sure of the eligibilty status for students who enroll out of the district to other public schools through open enrollment or the Choice Is Yours program.
Johnson said the loss is a luxury the district can't afford as it tries to balance its budget for next school year. The district already has cut some $24 million in expenses as it prepares the budget for board approval..
Minneapolis kids have plenty of options for enrolling elsewhere: private and parochial schools, charter schools, open enrollment to suburbs and the Choice is Yours program.
Summer school for students entering eighth grade or younger starts June 17 and goes for six hours daily four days a week through July 25. The deadline for registering was last Friday, although some households didn't get a district resource guide telling them that until this week. Other options for older students, including classes that help high school students make up credits, or entering ninth graders to get a head start on them, also are available.
Non-district students will still be eligible for the summer meals program, Johnson said, because the district gets reimbursed for that, Johnson said.
Abdi Warsame has the DFL endorsement in the Sixth Ward, but faces a tough challenge unseating incumbent Robert Lilligren. Alondra Cano won the party nod in the Ninth Ward, putting her in the driver’s seat for the job Gary Schiff is vacating to run for mayor.
The Somali-born Warsame is the best bet for a foreign-born candidate to win election to the City Council since Jamaican-American Don Samuels did so in 2003. Samuels won’t be back next year because he’s running for mayor instead. But another immigrant,, Thai-born Blong Yang, who is of Hmong ethnicity, is among those running for the Samuels seat.
Cano was born in Minnesota but she could also claim to be an immigrant. She was born to undocumented farm workers laboring in Litchfield, Minn., and lived there until age 2, when her family moved back to Chihuahua, Mexico. She returned at 10, when her parents returned to outstate Minnesota to work in poultry factories. She learned English in school, and mostly transitioned out of bilingual instruction within three years.
Samuels was the first immigrant on the council since Keith Ford, elected to two year terms in 1973 and 1975. Ford was 13 when his family left England, and 17 when it moved south from Winnipeg. He was elected 12 years later. Late Mayor Charles Stenvig tried to make Ford’s ancestry an issue during a 1976 budget dispute in which he compared the 10th Ward alderman to King George III and sniped that “England’s gain is the United States’ loss.”
Ford missed by two years overlapping with the previous immigrant on the council, “Pumpkin Joe” Greenstein, who served from 1961-1971 and was born in Poland. The North Side merchant earned his nickname by giving away thousands of pumpkins each Halloween.
It’s been 67 years, since the late 1940s, that two immigrants served on the council together. That factoid comes courtesy of Tony Hill, the political scientist and student of municipal history.
The most recent of two foreign-born mayors was Swedish-rooted Eric Hoyer, who served 1949-1957.
Sweden leads as the birthplace of foreign-born council members with 25, followed by 22 from Germany, including Prussia, and 19 from Canada.
The Minneapolis school board already has one immigrant and one migrant seated, with Somali-born Hussein Samatar and also Alberto Monserrate, who was born in the territory of Puerto Rico, which gave him U.S. citizenship
Photo: "Pumpkin Joe" Greenstein
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