Minneapolis Public Schools Superintendent Ed Graff on Monday laid out an ambitious vision for the school district and his pitch to residents for the additional money to pay for it.
The district, which has been grappling with chronic budget deficits and decreasing enrollment, is gearing up to ask voters for an additional $18 million for operations and $12 million for technology.
The referendum and changes to programming and services will let the district invest in "schools within the priority areas of literacy, equity, social and emotional learning, and support services for all of our students, no matter where they are in their learning," Graff said at his State of the Schools address.
Graff is just months away from signing his first strategic plan, which includes a call to give students more support and access to advanced courses, and to career and technical courses after graduation.
Speaking to a nearly full auditorium at North Community High School in Minneapolis, Graff stressed the importance of forging partnerships with families, staff, and local leaders to accelerate student achievement and foster an environment that embraces the cultural diversity of students and families served in the public schools.
"Now, more than ever, partnership is key," said Graff, who's entering his third year as superintendent at the state's third largest school district. "We must redouble our efforts. Our students must be given opportunities that move them forward."
Students, families and city leaders, including Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey, attended the event.
For the first time in a decade, the district approved a budget that doesn't rely on reserve funds. That means the district is pinched financially and the strategic plan, which the school board will vote on in December, will be guided by a budget that saw some turbulence after the board voted in April to restore $6.4 million to secondary schools. Graff said his team worked to improve efficiency for both staff and the district's 34,000 students by reorganizing the central office, which was hit the hardest during budget cuts.
To erase a projected $33 million deficit for 2018-19, Minneapolis school leaders approved an $18.4 million reduction in the central office and a nearly $15 million cut in school allocations.
District leaders have depended on voter-approved operating levies to offset what they claim is a lack of state support in areas such as special education and instruction for English language learners.
On Monday, Graff entertained the crowd by playing the drums with students on stage. "If there's a theme running through our gathering this morning, it's one of partnership because it truly takes a village to educate all children," he said.
In the last two years, Graff has made early literacy his top priority, rolling out new reading instruction materials in pre-K through fifth-grade classrooms across the city to help boost literacy rates. Those efforts, he said, will show measurable gains in elementary reading scores when state education officials release test data later this month. He also emphasized the importance of championing social and emotional learning for students as a way to improve students' success in school, in the workforce and in life.
Graff also spoke about the district's graduation rates increasing. In Minneapolis, about two-thirds of students overall graduated on time in 2017 — a dip of 1 percentage point — placing the district just shy of the bottom for metro graduation rates. But that's still up about 14 percentage points from five years ago, representing one of the biggest gains of any Twin Cities district.
Educational programs alone, Graff noted, will not address the swift changes needed in housing, transportation and employment to lessen the strong effects of poverty. He thanked the city for launching the "Stable Homes, Stable Schools" initiative to address homelessness among Minneapolis Public Schools students. Frey said the city and Minneapolis Public Housing Authority will provide housing vouchers for 320 families of 640 students to find housing within a half-mile of their community school and included $3.3 million annually in his 2019 budget to support that plan.
"We're nationally recognized for our progressive education and still we can all agree that our funding has lost ground and that's unacceptable," Frey said. He added that the new initiative will give students the stability they need to succeed in the classroom.
Students Marie Stebbings and Marike Kay, both 17, who attended the event, said Graff's remarks were inspirational but fell short on specifics on individual schools. Stebbings, a student at South High, said she is excited about the affordable housing plan, which will give some of her friends grappling with homelessness, "a whole new opportunity when it comes to education now."