Black students in Minneapolis face long odds on the path to graduation

  • Article by: STEVE BRANDT , Star Tribune
  • Updated: February 19, 2014 - 11:13 AM

Pressure rises on district to eradicate a large black-white achievement gap.

Her son is just turning 5, but Anquinetta Phillips has no doubt that Xavier Withers has great things ahead.

Like other black parents attending a recent school choice fair for Minneapolis schools, she is certain that her child will succeed in a school district where almost four out of five American-born black students are not proficient in reading and only one in three graduates on time.

“He’s not going to be a statistic at all,” said Phillips, a Bloomington resident who is considering enrolling her son in a North Side district school.

Parental confidence aside, public pressure is intensifying on Minneapolis public schools to narrow the gulf between the academic success of its minority and white students — the achievement gap. While closing that gap is a nationwide and statewide priority, it is particularly urgent in Minneapolis, and it is particularly acute for the district’s black students.

Black students form the largest student bloc in Minneapolis schools, at close to 13,000 kids. While other groups demand attention — Latino and Indian student results also lag, for example — raising black student achievement will have the greatest impact on the district’s overall performance.

Despite years of attention, the gap persists. For black students, it widens after kindergarten. Black kindergartners enter school trailing whites by 21 percentage points in preliteracy skills. By the first state tests at the end of third grade, they trail by 54 percentage points in reading proficiency. That’s much higher that the statewide black-white reading gap, which was in the low 30s this year.

In a report on the state achievement gap released last week, Minneapolis fell short of its reading and math goals in almost every student category.

Further, a close look at the district’s numbers reveals a surprising fact: Poverty makes almost no difference for an American-born black student in his or her chances of graduating on time in Minneapolis schools.

White students in poverty graduate in four years at a higher rate than black students who are not poor, according to district data.

Even among black students not tagged with the labels usually linked to low performance — poverty, special education, English learner, or homeless-highly mobile — only 49 percent graduate in four years.

In response, the district is making a number of midyear adjustments to focus on students in high-poverty/high-minority schools and delve deeper into why students fall behind.

Parents ponder options

There are stories of success in Minneapolis schools. At Washburn High School, for example, Audrey DeVaughn last year became the school’s first International Baccalaureate diploma recipient and was an eight-time sports captain. She’s biracial, the daughter of a college professor and a market research consultant, and now attends Yale. Her father, who is black, co-chaired Washburn’s leadership council.

“I was really motivated by my parents. They had really high expectations for me to do my best in school,” she said. Having friends of the same achievement-oriented mind-set also helped, she said.

But another Washburn parent left the system bitter. Ralph Crowder is a frequent critic at school board meetings of how students of color are educated. His daughter graduated, he said, but it took her longer than four years because she had credits to make up.

Two weeks ago, he said, he withdrew his son from Washburn to stay with relatives in Maryland and attend a high-performing school there.

He believes the problems are systemic for black families. “I wasn’t valued. I wasn’t treated as a stakeholder, and it was full of stories of discrimination at every last turn of decisionmaking,” Crowder said. “For a black male parent, that was my experience. I can only imagine his experience in a classroom.”

Minneapolis parents can pick from a widening variety of charter school and suburban options, but many black parents keep their students in district schools despite the troubling numbers.

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