The Minneapolis school board on Tuesday night backed off a plan to leave the Twin Cities' oldest voluntary integration district.

Superintendent Bill Green presented the school board last month with a resolution to leave the West Metro Education Program (WMEP) in the 2009-10 school year. In arguing for the withdrawal, Green said WMEP, which began in 1989 and operates two schools, was no longer an effective vehicle for school integration and had failed to live up to its own mission.

Parents and other WMEP supporters, including the University of Minnesota's Institute on Race and Poverty and the NAACP, criticized the district's reasons for wanting to withdraw from the integration district at a packed hearing last week.

At Tuesday night's meeting, the Minneapolis board was unanimous in backing Green's decision to table the plan. Board member Pam Costain said she hopes to see WMEP foster more engagement among its member districts with the goal of improving achievement among all minority and low-income students.

"We can't just have islands of excellence," said Costain. "That's true for Minneapolis public schools and it needs to be true for its suburban partners."

Thomas Luce, research director for the University of Minnesota's Institute on Race and Poverty (IRP), said earlier Tuesday that Minneapolis public schools' reconsideration of the proposal was welcome news.

"We think working to make these schools better than they are now is better than pulling out of the program," Luce said. "There have been positive steps that have made at these schools."

In making their argument for pulling out of the integration district, Minneapolis schools leaders pointed out that WMEP's two schools were racially imbalanced themselves: the Fine Arts Interdisciplinary Resource school in Crystal, which serves grades 4-8 and has an arts focus, is 69 percent white. In comparison, the district's other school, the Interdistrict Downtown School in Minneapolis, is 33 percent white.

Minneapolis schools also said WMEP's schools have had little effect on the achievement gap between middle-income white and lower-income minority students.

Changes still sought

The proposal to withdraw from WMEP was to have been voted on by the board Tuesday night. Green confirmed his intention to table the proposal Tuesday morning. "Tabling the motion is recognizing that people are interested in working together," he said.

The district now plans to meet with the WMEP board and other groups, including the Minneapolis Urban League and ISAIAH, a network of church congregations committed to racial and economic justice, with the goal of establishing an action plan that can be carried out by the end of the year.

If that process isn't fruitful, Green said earlier Tuesday, the district could move to withdraw from the district after the 2010-11 school year.

"We want to be partners [with the community] but we want to see" how it works out, he said. "If there's no significant movement on this, we'll revisit the proposal. None of these kids can afford for us to let them down."

After Green proposed withdrawing from WMEP, parents and other supporters pounced on the district.

In the weeks leading up to Tuesday night's board meeting, Myron Orfield, the IRP's executive director, published a memo that cited state data showing that WMEP's students of color outperformed students of color in Minneapolis and throughout Minnesota on state tests.

For instance, 42 percent of WMEP's black students were proficient on state math exams compared to 21 percent in Minneapolis and 31 percent statewide during the 2007-08 school year. Still, the institute said more work must be done to build on that foundation.

At Tuesday night's meeting, residents praised Green for having the courage to raise concerns about WMEP's effectiveness and for his willingness to work with the community.

"I'm here to say thank you for listening and thank you for working for us," Bob Aldrich of Minneapolis said. "You have a whole room full of people who are like me and willing but not really sure where to go and need your help."

Other WMEP member districts include Brooklyn Center, Columbia Heights, Eden Prairie, Edina, Hopkins, Richfield, Robbinsdale, St. Anthony-New Brighton, St. Louis Park and Wayzata.

Patrice Relerford • 612-673-4395