At Harambee Elementary in Maplewood, cultural diversity soaks into almost every lesson, activity and classroom discussion.

A "community cultures specialist" tours classes to make sure students are working across racial lines and learning about multiple world view perspectives. Kindergartners use crayons in numerous shades of skintone to draw accurate pictures of themselves. "We don't shy away from having conversations about race and the way we treat each other," said Harambee Principal Kristine Black.

But Harambee and the metro area's other voluntary integration programs are under intensifying pressure to show more than racial harmony among their 13,000 students. At a time when student achievement is a top priority, two out of the metro area's three integration districts have failed to make the academic progress required under federal law. Some districts have pulled out.

Their future darkened even more Wednesday when the Legislature passed a K-12 appropriation that sliced more than a third of the funding for the integration districts.

Republican leaders argue that state funding for integration will be $64 million this year alone, but has yielded too few solid results and would instead direct money toward efforts to raise achievement and reward districts that show success teaching kids to read.

Black hopes that won't happen. "To just eliminate the funding feels shortsighted," said Black. "This is long-term work that we're doing. It's a really complex problem and it's going to need comprehensive solutions."

13,000 students, $25 million

Minnesota's special integration schools were born in 1997, after the state overhauled its desegregation program.

The West Metro Education Program (WMEP) created a downtown school and the FAIR fine arts magnet in Crystal to attract students from Minneapolis and neighboring suburbs. The East Metro Integration District (EMID) created Harambee and the Crosswinds arts/science magnet in Woodbury for St. Paul and its neighboring districts.

In 2001, the Northwest Suburban Integration School District formed when Brooklyn Center joined St. Paul and Minneapolis as a "racially isolated" district. It has worked with existing schools rather than building new ones.

The integration districts spent around $25.2 million last year. Most came from its member districts' integration revenue, education tax dollars that follow students, and state and federal grants. The money pays for academic programs, cultural-awareness training for teachers, social services and transportation.

The three districts have shown success in getting families to participate. Of the districts' approximately 13,000 students, about half are white, and about half are low-income.

"My children have gained a certain level of confidence and they're comfortable around all types of people," said Demond Bryant, an African-American who lives in Cottage Grove and sends his two children to Harambee.

A look at the scores

But strong academic results have been more difficult to show.

For example, fewer students at Harambee were proficient in reading and math last year than at Cowern Elementary, a North St. Paul neighborhood school with similar demographics that did make academic progress under federal law.

Dissatisfied with the results, North St. Paul-Maplewood-Oakdale withdrew from EMID in 2009, taking back its $1 million annual contribution. Mahtomedi also withdrew.

"We wanted our integration dollars to impact more of our students," said Tom Howley, North St. Paul's equity coordinator.

A Star Tribune analysis of state test score data shows that minority students from Minneapolis and St. Paul clearly score better in the special integration schools than do the minority students in their home districts.

But results for suburban students are mixed.

Fifty-four percent of minority students at EMID were proficient in reading, more than the nearly 43 percent in St. Paul. For WMEP, almost 66 percent of minority students were proficient in reading, compared with 36 percent in Minneapolis.

The achievement gap between white and minority students persisted, but narrowed in the integration schools. There remains a 38 percent difference between white and black students proficient in reading in St. Paul, compared to a 20 percent difference at EMID. Minneapolis showed a 50 percent difference between students of color and white students' proficiency rate while WMEP only has a 23 percent difference.

But the picture changes when east suburban districts are compared to EMID's integration schools. There the integration schools' minority students rated below those in the regular school districts in both reading and math proficiency.

Achievement now a goal

Student achievement wasn't an explicit goal of the integration schools in the beginning, school officials say. That didn't happen until 2008, three years after the Legislative Auditor reported that integration aid lacked a clear goal, and that neither the state nor schools adequately assess its results.

"I think we need greater clarity and greater accountability," said Kathy Griebel, director of instructional services for EMID. "Everyone's looking for the right answer."

Northwest Suburban Integration School District executive director Mark Robertson said schools need time and, possibly, more money to address that, he said.

"They tell us that we're failing but they don't tell us what to go after," he said. "It's not sensible to me."

Robertson said his integration district likely would fold if Gov. Mark Dayton approves the funding cuts. Most of the school districts would discontinue most of the programs jumpstarted by the Northwest Integration District.

"It's not a trust thing," Robertson said. "I just don't think they can. They don't have the resources."

Integration schools are "not immune to improvement," said Jerry Robicheau, EMID's interim superintendent.

"I think the challenge is how do you truly integrate?" he said. "Just having students sit in classroom that's multicultural is one thing but how do you really create an inclusive environment that deals with all students?"

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