A Minneapolis school district plan to stem the tide of students fleeing for nearby charter and suburban schools is facing intense resistance from parents and teachers who say they’ve been shut out of the planning process and fear the proposed changes outlined in the plan will only make things worse.
The recommendations, rolled out late last month by district leaders, include options that would change attendance boundaries for some schools, reassign students to new schools and possibly jeopardize some language immersion and magnet programs.
The focus of the three-year strategic plan, district officials say, is to improve academic achievement, boost enrollment, and restore parents’ trust by providing rigorous instruction and equal access to programs across the district.
But district staffers and parents are pushing back on the proposed plan, saying that redrawing school attendance zones to fill up underenrolled schools will lead to segregation and a drastic drop in enrollment. They have called on the district to delay the final school board vote — currently scheduled for August — and give the community enough time to offer feedback.
Superintendent Ed Graff said he felt pressure to deliver a plan that would kick-start a conversation about the state’s third-largest school district, which for years has been wrestling with budget deficits, declining enrollment and a significant achievement gap between students of color and white students. The chosen model, Graff said, must support his top four priorities: literacy, equity, social and emotional learning and support services for students.
“I want this to go well for our students, for our families, for our staff and for the community,” Graff said in an interview last week. But he added that he also feels an obligation when he looks at the student achievement gap to make sure the district will be viable in the future.
Graff has already determined one of the models, which is similar to the one the district is operating under but with limited transportation routes, is financially unsustainable.
The other two models — a north-south and four-zone design — would have similar designated “pathways” for students moving from elementary to middle and high schools, but different transportation options, district officials said. The north-south model would allow parents to choose schools all around the district, while the four-zone design calls for tighter transportation boundaries and fewer school options for parents.
District officials said the strategic planning is in its infancy and they have yet to release data detailing the possible impact and cost benefits. For 18 months, the Minneapolis Public Schools has been working with consultant Dennis Cheesebrow, to help develop the plan and improve enrollment numbers, costing the district more than $179,000 to date. Surveys, small group discussions and data analysis were used to gather feedback from the school community, Graff said. Under the new strategic plan, the goal is to improve academics to lure about 6,000 additional students into the district, making sure that schools are operating at 70% capacity. District administrators said the plan would bring students, particularly those on the North Side and northeast, back to their neighborhood schools. At least one-third of school-age children in the city are choosing education elsewhere, according to a recent Star Tribune analysis.
Board Member KerryJo Felder, who represents North Side schools, said the proposed changes would starve her schools.
“I don’t see the specialized [programs] being put into my schools to bring back all the students that it could,” she said. “I’m tired of feeding the rest of the district. North Side schools don’t have what they deserve.”
A coalition of organizations that represent thousands of families of color in the district sent a letter this week to the school board, noting that the district’s plan doesn’t do enough to close the achievement gap. Their list of demands include: involving parents in the planning process, allowing school choice and creating measurable academic goals.
Last Tuesday night, a group of parents of color temporarily shut down the school board’s regular meeting, blocking Graff from leaving the room and demanding that their voices be heard. Among them was Adriana Cerrillo, a parent in the district and a family advocate, who said immigrant families have been left out of the process. She said the district hasn’t been transparent and failed to provide interpreters at the April 30 board meeting when the plan was first unveiled.
“I believe in disruption but also I believe in sitting down and having conversations,” Cerrillo said. “They need to delay the vote and involve parents. They can’t expect us to come to them all the time. They need to come to our community.”
Meanwhile, parent-teacher organization and site council leaders at the three immersion schools in the district — Windom, Emerson and Sheridan — are scrambling to make sense of the plan. Sonya Perez-Lauterbach, a Sheridan parent and treasurer of the school’s PTO and site council, said some of the changes will boost enrollment at her school but would hurt other schools.
“We do need changes to address schools that don’t have high enrollment or need additional programming to attract families,” she said. But “we want to make sure all three immersion programs are sustained and supported.”
Stina Kielsmeier-Cook, a parent whose daughter is in first grade at Emerson Spanish Immersion Learning Center, said she was hoping to send her son to the same school for kindergarten. But under the new plan, she said, her family wouldn’t get busing. Kielsmeier-Cook is also concerned the zoning plans may cause Emerson to lose about 40% of its currently enrolled students who live on the North Side and in northeast Minneapolis. Many Emerson students go on to Anwatin Middle School, whose immersion program would be split and moved to Anderson and Northeast, she said. Taking away the Anwatin language immersion program, she said, would create disruption and limit access to established, integrated programs for students in north Minneapolis.
The day after Tuesday night’s contentious school board meeting, Graff and his team were grilled by distraught teachers and support staff at a meeting at the Minneapolis teachers union headquarters. The educators said they were kept in the dark and called the process “shady” and “disrespectful.” Ruth LeMay, who has been teaching in the district for nearly 30 years, acknowledged Graff’s effort to improve things in the district, but she said the process is rushed.
“Let us be heard, we’re brilliant,” said LeMay, a guitar teacher at Southwest High School. “We know Minneapolis Public Schools like we know our heartbeat.”