The Minneapolis public schools should remain in an 11-district integration effort, as long as changes are made to improve its value for city kids, district staff recommended Tuesday.

Earlier this year, the Minneapolis district gave notice to the West Metro Education Program (WMEP) that it would pull out of the cooperative effort for the 2013-2014 school year if further study warranted. It's the second time in recent years that the district has threatened a pullout.

The program operates two schools that draw from the participating districts. Yet reading proficiency for Minneapolis students enrolled in the integration schools is roughly the same as for city students who applied but didn't get in.

The staff recommendation to stay in WMEP for another three years was presented to the board in a study session Tuesday and is expected to go to a vote later this month. The staff noted that state law requires Minneapolis to partner with several of its whiter neighboring districts on integration efforts. That law expires July 1, and the Legislature has not agreed on what will follow.

"I'm thrilled that that's the recommendation," said Helen Bassett, WMEP's board chair and a Robbinsdale school board member. She said it shows that Minneapolis recognizes that WMEP is listening to its concerns.

The staff recommendation said that extending the current arrangement would allow students to cross district lines to go to the two schools while the Minneapolis district works out new partnerships for integration.

The two west-metro integration schools are known as FAIR. One is a fourth- to eighth-grade school in Crystal and the other, in downtown Minneapolis, is a campus for kindergarten to third grades and sixth to 12th grades. They enroll about 1,058 students. The original idea behind each was that the downtown school would integrate by attracting white kids to the city, and the Crystal school would attract minority students to the suburbs. But the suburban school has had a white majority and the Minneapolis school a minority majority.

The Minneapolis board's January resolution on leaving WMEP says that it remains committed to integration but aims to conserve its money by backing strategies that best achieve social and academic equity.

An evaluation presented to the board said that although the combined enrollment of the two schools is close to Minneapolis in its two-thirds-minority percentage, enrolling students are much less likely to be low-income, learning English, homeless or need special-education services.

"I don't think anyone's real happy about the current state," said Carla Bates, who sits on Minneapolis and WMEP boards. She said the definition of integration needs to change from the purely racial balancing motive when the district was formed in 1997.

That's why a key change recommended by the staff is to change lottery selection criteria and recruitment efforts to make FAIR students from Minneapolis more like the city student body.

One portion of the staff analysis compares proficiency over two years of state testing between students who got into FAIR schools via the lottery and those who weren't selected. It found the same relative proficiency in reading among the two groups.

The analysis found FAIR students in high school grades had about the same racial achievement gap as district students but did better on the achievement gap for middle school, something that might be expected from having fewer harder-to-educate students. That was also the pattern when the results were limited to low-income students.

Steve Brandt • 612-673-4438