Board opts to keep integration schools open around the metro

  • Article by: DAAREL BURNETTE II
  • Star Tribune
  • October 19, 2011 - 8:05 PM

Two voluntary integration schools will remain open but with less funding, the East Metro Integration District school board decided Wednesday.

A crowd of relieved parents praised the decision, which resolved a two-month debate among impassioned parents, board members and a group of east-side superintendents who felt the millions of dollars their districts contributed to the 10-district collaboration were not producing higher test scores or narrowing the achievement gap between white and black students.

"As a board member, you have to vote with your head economically but you also have to vote with your heart," said board member Jim Gelbmann. "I'm all in favor of providing as many choices as possible to parents. This is a somewhat more expensive choice but if it helps kids to succeed and to go on and become productive members in their communities ... then I think it's worth going forward with."

Wednesday's vote, taken unexpectedly before parents were allowed to speak, allows the two schools to stay open indefinitely, thanks to a compromise plan offered by several superintendents, who proposed the board keep the schools open but reduce the districts' contributions by up to 43 percent.

Harambee Elementary in Maplewood and Crosswinds in Woodbury were founded as part of EMID, a voluntary school desegregation project involving St. Paul and nine surrounding districts. Both schools are less than 15 years old. Similar integration schools serve the west-metro area.

EMID's original goal was to provide a multicultural learning space for students and integration development for staff. In recent years, legislators also wanted the schools to show progress in closing the achievement gap between minority and white students.

With a $9.5 million annual operating budget, the year-round schools offer International Baccalaureate, environmental science and art magnet programs. They have a combined enrollment of 850 students and have drawn deep community support.

But test scores at the schools were lower than at many of the participating districts' own neighborhood schools, prompting the North St. Paul-Maplewood-Oakdale and Mahtomedi districts to pull out of the collaboration in 2009.

At the Capitol last session, the Republican-controlled Legislature considered cutting the $64 million in state integration aid, a fund that is the primary support for the two schools and other integration projects throughout the Twin Cities. Legislators ultimately resolved to keep the funding in place until 2014 and appoint a committee that would determine how the state will spend the money.

The EMID board sought the advice of an outside consulting firm and proposed that Harambee and Crosswinds either close, be restructured or be placed under different leadership, such as a charter school.

In response, school parents launched an aggressive social media campaign to keep the schools open. They have complained that the process was not transparent and that moves to close the schools were untimely considering that the appointed committee will decide what to do with integration funds in February.

With the cut in funding the board will have to cut several programs over the next several months, board members said.

"We need to realize things aren't going to look the same next year," said board member Lori Swanson.

That didn't dissuade parents.

"The energy you see here tonight is not going to go away and leave you holding the bag," parent Michael Boguszewski told board members. "We'll help in any way we can to reach that long-term sustainability. Let's keep pulling together for this common cause."

Daarel Burnette II • 651-735-1695 Twitter: @DaarelStrib

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