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Minneapolis wants out of desegregation district

  • Article by: NORMAN DRAPER
  • Star Tribune
  • February 23, 2009 - 11:51 PM

Minneapolis schools want to pull the plug on its participation in the Twin Cities' first desegregation district, charging it isn't succeeding in its lofty goals.

Some say such a move has the potential to cripple the two-decade effort to bring more racial balance to Twin Cities schools.

Minneapolis Superintendent Bill Green said he will present a resolution to the Minneapolis board today to end district participation in the West Metro Education Program (WMEP). Started in 1989, WMEP covers Minneapolis and 10 suburban districts that banded together to achieve more racial integration in Twin Cities schools and help narrow the achievement gulf separating middle-class white kids from low-income minority students. Minneapolis schools tend to have far higher percentages of poor kids and minority students than do most suburban schools.

WMEP features two schools -- the Interdistrict Downtown School (IDDS) in Minneapolis, which is grades K-12, and the Fine Arts Interdisciplinary Resource (FAIR) school, in Crystal, which is grades 4-8. Even though those schools are meant to be magnets, attracting minority kids to the suburbs and white kids to Minneapolis, Green said they have done little to change the racial disparity between Minneapolis and surrounding districts.

He said the FAIR school, which has an arts emphasis, is 69 percent white, compared with 33 percent at IDDS.

Also, he said, the two schools have had little impact on the achievement gap and don't enroll the non-English speaking students who are increasingly crowding Minneapolis schools.

"In my own district, if you were to create a separate district for ELL (English language learner) students, that district would be the 22nd largest in the state," Green said. "That's in contrast to the enrollment at WMEP schools, where there are no ELL students at all."

Already, WMEP parents are up in arms about the proposal. They wonder whether WMEP can survive Minneapolis' defection.

"I see a domino effect happening," said Minneapolis resident John Haggerty, whose daughter is an IDDS kindergarten student. "If Minneapolis goes, the rest of the member districts will pull out, and I see WMEP dissolving."

WMEP board chairwoman Jane Eckert said Green's proposal perplexed her.

"All of a sudden, 'Boom, I'm taking my marbles and going home,'" she said. "I don't understand it. .... WMEP would be a very different organization without Minneapolis."

Green said he realizes his recommendation, which is slated for a board vote March 10, will create a "firestorm" among WMEP supporters and parents. It also raises questions about the effectiveness of voluntary school desegregation efforts in the Twin Cities. The proposal would pull Minneapolis out of the WMEP arrangement after the 2009-2010 school year. A public hearing on the proposal is scheduled for March 5 at the Minneapolis schools administration building.

Green said that he was open to the possibility that Minneapolis kids could continue to attend WMEP schools, but more on the basis of the "open enrollment" state allowance that permits students to attend districts other than their own as long as those districts have space. Another element that figures in deliberations is cost: Minneapolis would save $3.9 million in annual tuition costs by leaving the consortium.

Plus, Green said, he and the board need to concentrate on addressing Minneapolis' pressing needs, and a looming budget deficit of $28 million.

"I just need to direct our resources more towards restructuring and right-sizing Minneapolis schools proper," he said.

Any Minneapolis pullout of the WMEP program would not affect The Choice is Yours program administered by WMEP, Green said. That program allows poor Minneapolis kids to go to school in suburban schools with free transportation.

According to WMEP Superintendent Dan Jett, 2,100 students participate in that program. Jett put the enrollment at both IDDS and the FAIR schools at 1,160. Jett said Monday he had too little information on the Minneapolis proposal to comment on it.

Half of WMEP's enrollment is Minneapolis students, Green said.

Minneapolis parent Kyle Samejima, who has two children in the FAIR school, said the WMEP program is doing exactly what it set out to do.

"It's an ideal [white-to-nonwhite] ratio," she said. "FAIR is closing the achievement gap, and IDDS is as well. ... This is about community, a regional community. For Minneapolis not to give this a chance to work is tragic."

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

Norman Draper • 612-673-4547

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