The white and nonwhite kids in Jaci Sullivan’s third- and fourth-grade classroom at Clara Barton Open School chowed down on a smorgasbord of Swedish meatballs, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, Doritos and fruit during a recent lunch break.

Underlying the lunchtime chatter was a class motto: Respect differences — even on lunch trays.

“Don’t ‘yuck’ his ‘yum!’ ” one student called out.

Diversity lessons like these pulse through southwest Minneapolis magnet school Barton, where the number of kids of color in its student body continues to rise. Minority student enrollment surged by nearly 50 percent there in the past five years, mirroring the growth in kids of color across Minneapolis Public Schools magnets.

For decades, school leaders around the country have turned to magnets as a way to balance the racial mix of kids in schools. Roughly 4,000 magnet and theme-based schools dot cities from New York to Los Angeles. In Minneapolis, where North Side schools are filled with mostly kids of color while many southwest Minneapolis schools have heavily white student bodies, Barton represents progress in the effort to increase racial and cultural diversity in the classroom.

Some parents worry that magnet schools lure the best students away from neighborhood schools, while leaving out kids most in need. But the benefits of diverse classrooms are far-reaching, said Minneapolis academics chief Michael Thomas.

Students who are unable “to embrace cross-cultural engagement strategies or conflict resolution strategies or managing and leading through difference, whatever that difference might be, they’re not going to be able to compete,” Thomas said.

Despite the enrollment gains among students of color, budget pressures are forcing Minneapolis Public Schools to cut funding to magnet schools. Lloyd Winfield, interim principal of the magnet Dowling Urban Environmental School, said he had to cut personnel this spring in response. Magnet school leaders are figuring out how to continue services, he said.

Barton’s story

Signs filled the hallway across from Barton’s main office on a recent morning, created for a school walk-in following President Donald Trump’s attempted travel ban. “You make America great,” one read. Another, in colorful lettering: “We support all!”

About half the school is white and one-quarter is Somali, and staff said families ranging from American Indian to Somali are attracted by the school’s word-of-mouth reviews, community ties and progressive education. The influx of kids of color is “absolutely a success,” said Diane Bagley, the school’s assistant principal.

“You’re talking about wanting to educate the whole child as well as have a global society within your own school,” she said. “That’s exciting, because we’re getting them ready for what they’re going to see out in the greater world.”

Magnets originated in Minneapolis schools in the 1980s, originally designed to desegregate schools by attracting kids with school themes like the arts, open programs and the environment.

Integrated magnets like Barton have narrowed educational outcomes between white students and students of color, said Myron Orfield, a University of Minnesota law professor who has researched magnets. A 2014 Minneapolis district report found that magnets weren’t integrating schools, so leadership became “more deliberate on making sure that the schools were diversifying with their enrollment,” said district research and accountability chief Eric Moore.

Nonwhite families can be attracted by minority school leaders and established communities, Thomas said. “Families of color tend to go where other families of color go, because they’re going to feel safe,” he said.

Barton is figuring out ways to remain responsive to its slate of cultures, including holding parent involvement days for families of different racial backgrounds. At Dowling, which has seen a nearly 40 percent spike in minority enrollment, Winfield said he anticipates the numbers of students of color will continue to rise.

Not all Minneapolis magnets boast such racial balance. Some mostly minority schools like Folwell School, a performing arts magnet, and Sheridan Arts Spanish Dual Immersion added to their numbers of kids of color in recent years.

Diversity in class

Over the next year, Minneapolis schools will assess the district, including magnet schools and school choice. While students of color are flocking to magnets, Moore said he hopes the movement can go both ways — that white students will start to move into schools with high concentrations of kids of color.

“You really have to then have a very attractive program for families to want to move, for parents to want to have their child ride a bus to a different portion of the city,” Moore said.

Diversity hits a personal chord for Bagley, the Barton assistant principal. When she was growing up, her father told her she should hide her American Indian heritage at school.

“I never want that same conversation to happen for any of our kids,” she said.