The rise in white enrollments for the first time in decades may reflect superior test scores.
It's not something trumpeted by a school district sensitive to its yawning racial achievement gap, but white students in the Minneapolis public schools are testing above average in Lake Wobegon country.
Non-Hispanic white kids in the Minneapolis district are scoring at a higher level than their white peers across Minnesota in state math, reading and science tests. The gap ranges from a single percentage point in math to 7 points in science.
Those results may reaffirm the decision by more white Minneapolis parents to stay in the district, bucking a trend of families heading to the suburbs when their kids hit school age.
The share of white kids in the district has been rising since 2002. But previously that meant they were leaving a shrinking district more slowly than other racial or ethnic groups, many of whom took advantage of state-funded transport to suburban schools.
The absolute number of white kids bottomed out in 2008. There were a few dozen more white students the following year, and then their numbers jumped by several hundred in each of the next two years. Last year, the 10,999 white students made up nearly one-third of enrollment, up 7 percentage points from 2002.
Blacks represent 36 percent of students, Latinos 19 percent, Asians 8 percent and American Indians less than 5 percent.
One leading critic of metro segregation, Myron Orfield of the University of Minnesota's Institute on Metropolitan Opportunity, said the prime factor is that growth is strongest in the city's southwest corner. From a parent's perspective, low poverty rates, high test scores and a largely white enrollment add up to a student population "very much like the best suburban schools," he said.
Others suggest factors ranging from the economy to expanding classroom space in explaining the growth in white enrollment.
One theory is that a failed housing market trapped parents in homes they had intended to sell before the kids reached school age -- but that factor didn't keep white enrollment from continuing to ebb in St. Paul, where scores also topped the state, by smaller margins.
Stephanie and Christopher Pichner might have looked at homes in the nearby suburbs had their Shingle Creek starter home's value not been marked down $100,000. Instead, they discovered Loring Community School, where the staff accommodated the attention-deficit needs of their third-grader with more flexibility while adding a tougher spelling list and above-grade-level math to engage his high IQ.
The battered economy has also left parents less willing to invest in private schools. "You start to look at the payment for private schools across your child's school career, and it's enormous," said Liz Short. She's the co-chair of the parent advisory council for the district's Area C, stretching from downtown to its southwest corner, and a Lyndale Community School parent.
The district has also hardened its attendance boundaries while making sure that every neighborhood has a community school, along with limited magnet options. "Maybe parents are saying, 'Hey, these schools are really good,'" Short said.
Her area is the leading contributor to the district's enrollment rebound. Enrollment there is up about 1,500 elementary and middle school students over the past six years, while the area east to the St. Paul border has been flat during that period.
The district is also readying for enrollment gains suggested by the 2010 census in the Nokomis-Longfellow area. It will renovate Howe school to open next fall to pair with Hiawatha as a K-8 school. It is building space for 180 more students at the Keewaydin campus of Lake Nokomis Community School. Investments like that build momentum, Short said.
Meanwhile in the southwest corner of the city, the lower campus of Lake Harriet Community School is adding space for 125 students. It was the district's most racially unbalanced school last year at 88 percent white enrollment, which reflects the surrounding neighborhood.
Two other schools portray different paths to expanding white enrollment. One is Lyndale, which Short chose for her children even though she lived outside its attendance area, driving them from their home in nearby East Calhoun for eight years. White enrollment at the time was in the single digits. When the district offered Lyndale as the default school to nearby white neighborhoods, some parents balked.
Short encouraged parents to keep an open mind, parsing test data to point out that the number of students exceeding basic proficiency proved teachers were working to meet all ability levels, rather than teaching just to the needs of students learning English. The proportion of white students has tripled.
At Sanford Middle School, Principal Meredith Davis arrived in 1998 to an enrollment that was 15 percent white, roughly opposite that of surrounding neighborhoods. Now the school is 40 percent white, the biggest of any racial group. That's happened even as the school population has doubled, reflecting the closing of nearby Folwell Middle School and more rigid attendance boundaries.
Davis sensed more than five years ago that neighborhood students were returning. "Sanford really changed as a school, and the neighborhood wanted to give it a chance," she said.
Marketing the superior test results for whites is something the district hasn't done explicitly, even though it dates back at least five years.
"We're sensitive in this district, we're an urban district with many challenges, and we have a large achievement gap, and we are focusing whatever we can on lowering the gap," district spokesman Stan Alleyne said. That means focusing communication to families and others about how they need to get involved in the education of students.
"At the same time, we cannot ignore our success stories," Alleyne said, pointing to Southwest High School's top ranking in Minnesota from U.S. News & World Report.
Steve Brandt • 612-673-4438 Twitter: @brandtstrib