We got an e-mail survey from our high school this week, asking about our impressions of parent-teacher conference night. I was flabbergasted, because I can't remember the last time the Minneapolis Public Schools (MPS) asked me my opinion on anything. I was gratified, and it got me thinking about why, despite a parade of superintendents and reforms in our time in Minneapolis, the district still is staggeringly challenged at making families feel valued and "seen," in the current lingo.
In a few weeks, MPS will release revisions to its latest proposed reorganization, one of at least a half-dozen I've seen in our 16 years with children in the city's public schools. I recognize the complex array of challenges urban public schools face. Yet I hope among the weighty issues around equity and academic pathways, that the district will tackle the many phenomena that contribute to a sense that parents' time is not valued and that their needs are too disparate for the district to respond to.
My daughter attends Southwest High in the Fulton neighborhood. It is deserving of its reputation for some truly extraordinary teachers and learning opportunities. It's also frequently impersonal, disorganized and unresponsive to kids and parents, be they disadvantaged or advantaged (the school has plenty of both, despite stereotypes). And these challenges are surely common to other public schools in the district and the state.
On this "MEA weekend," when educators are focused on self-improvement, I thought it might be useful to discuss ways the district could reorganize with an eye toward providing a truly student/family-centered experience:
• Transportation is a hot button. In high school settings, MPS does not operate school buses but instead distributes Metro Transit passes. It takes two buses (or one bus and a mile walk) to get to our house, but most afternoons that's how our daughter gets home. This school year, those passes were distributed during a three-hour weekday window in August. It required my wife or me to leave work for roughly a third of the day.
It does not require an education degree to realize that many parents (or teens working summer jobs) could not conveniently be at school on a summer weekday. Yet there was no plan B offered, and calls of concern to the school generated no reply.
I remember that more than a decade ago the district moved a large group of schools to exhausting 7:30 a.m. starts to more efficiently use its bus fleet. A couple of years ago, most of those schools were moved back to later starts. No one seemed to know what had changed to render the previous approach a problem in need of a solution rather than a solution to a problem.
• Access is another issue. I've been reminded this fall how frequently parents are called to school for curriculum nights, teacher conferences, and arts/sports events. At these times, there is insufficient parking at many city schools to accommodate parents. Fulton is replete with no-parking zones designed to keep students from parking in the neighborhood, and on event nights the school warns parents to obey parking signs. So you arrive, pack in around the limited legal spaces and cross your fingers. Inevitably, police descend and issue citations for parking too close to a crosswalk and other picayune infractions.
• And there's scheduling. MPS returned to a post-Labor Day start for the first time in nearly a decade this fall, following years of being granted exceptions to the state law requiring it. No one liked the early starts; they inhibited kids from taking jobs at the State Fair and disrupted the logical rhythms of summer.
MPS first told us the early starts were necessary for construction projects in its system. An administrator later told me MPS was trying to improve its performance on the Minnesota Comprehensive Assessment tests by frontloading an additional week of instruction. That effort failed, first because it was a sham on its face, second because there was no aggregate change in classroom days.
Now, you may be asking why anyone should take notice of this array of small indignities when the district remains mired in underperforming schools and credible complaints of systemic inequity. I'd answer by suggesting that the status quo disproportionally harms disadvantaged families — the ones most consistently abandoning MPS, annually blowing holes in its budgeting.
How difficult would it be to stop requiring parents to leave work to engage in activities that could just as easily be scheduled on evenings or weekends? Or to schedule pass distribution for the convenience of a constituency other than site staff? Or put alternatives into an e-mail, or return calls? How taxing would it be to work the levers of power in the city to stop debasing families with technical parking citations as the price for showing up at school events?
I know this is a sensitive topic. Years ago, before we had school-age children, I wrote a small profile of the Minneapolis neighborhood I had recently moved to (Kenwood) in the lifestyle magazine for which I then worked. In it, I touched on the impression that our public school was on the upswing after years of perceived malaise. A few days after it was published, my employer received a letter to the editor, signed by some of my neighbors.
They rejected any suggestion the school had ever been anything but at-peak and questioned where I had gotten my information. The message was clear, if indirect: Keep your mouth shut; the schools are too fragile to air complaints publicly.
Years later, after our son's first day of high school, he reported that a student was smoking pot on the school bus. Being a nervous new high school parent, I e-mailed the principal who expressed surprise and said he'd get to the bottom of it. That was accomplished by pulling our son out of class and interrogating him as if he knew the identities of all the cannabis users in the building. The message was again clear: Don't complain, it will only come back to you.
I'd like to think MPS — an organization now rooted in "social emotional learning," an empathy-driven model — is perhaps finally ready to move on from a top-down approach to students and families. A survey about conference night is a start.
As school-age children and families throughout the state enjoy their long weekend, I'd hope a district dedicated to reform might more consistently ask how it might better serve its most important "stakeholders." If we're redesigning MPS around the needs of children and families, it's time to find out what we need and make that priority one.
Adam Platt is executive editor of Twin Cities Business.