School integration cooperatives around the metro are unraveling as school districts withdraw from them, signaling a shift from broad, collective desegregation efforts to more focused actions within individual schools and districts.
Edina and Hopkins are the latest two school districts to break from the West Metro Education Program (WMEP). The partnership, formed in 1989 to desegregate metro area schools, once counted 11 member school districts, but it could soon be down to six: Robbinsdale, St. Anthony-New Brighton, St. Louis Park, Wayzata, Eden Prairie and Minneapolis.
Even with six districts, its future remains uncertain. Minneapolis School District officials have signaled their desire to withdraw multiple times in recent years. Eden Prairie decided to withdraw earlier this year, but last week announced plans to stay.
While some educators say desegregation efforts are simply moving to other venues, some education advocates worry that the move to cut ties with groups like WMEP could escalate the rate of segregation.
“There has never been a more important time for these suburban communities to decide on whether they want to move the state forward on integration,” Helen Bassett, Robbinsdale school board member and WMEP joint powers board vice president said.
But suburban school districts now have more diverse student bodies of their own — WMEP schools have more than 30 percent students of color, instead of less than 10 percent before. That change has motivated districts like Hopkins to take the money they had been spending on WMEP programs to invest in their own.
Other integration districts also are losing support. Spring Lake Park has withdrawn from Equity Alliance, formerly known as East Metro Integration District (EMID), and Mounds View Public Schools has been phasing out of the Northwest Suburban Integration District (NSID).
WMEP has been coming apart for years, and its disintegration could further segregate the metro, said Myron Orfield, University of Minnesota law professor.
“We have the fastest-growing set of segregated schools in the country and this will probably make that grow a lot faster,” he said.
The concept for WMEP began in 1989 when Minneapolis and eight suburban districts joined forces to comply with state desegregation rules in effect at the time. The program gained muscle in the late 1990s as the Legislature appropriated money to create interdistrict schools offering programs to entice voluntary desegregation. The west metro saw the opening of the Downtown K12 School and the FAIR arts school in Crystal. In the east, Harambee Elementary and Crosswinds Arts and Science School opened.
While hundreds of students enrolled, tensions arose between the interdistrict schools and the member districts that contributed students and the money they bring, plus some of their state integration money. State funding also was unsteady.
“As WMEP became less functional, internal battles ensued and the state created harder hurdles, it became less of strong entity,” Orfield said.
In 2015, WMEP made the decision to give up control over its schools. Minneapolis Public Schools absorbed the downtown school while Robbinsdale took FAIR. EMID passed Harambee to Roseville and Crosswinds to the Perpich Center for Arts Education.
With no schools to run, the interdistrict programs now focus on professional development, college readiness and student cultural collaboration.
“That’s been one of the biggest challenges,” Kimberly Matier, WMEP executive director, who joined WMEP in 2015, said. “Everybody views west metro education as the organization that ran FAIR school downtown and FAIR Crystal, so creating a new identity for ourselves is going to take a little bit of time.”
WMEP and EMID are reaching out to nonmember districts to make up for the loss of revenue from departing districts.
WMEP will lose about $231,374 from Hopkins and Edina. The two districts are organizing their own collaborative that will include professional development and student programs. For the districts, the decision to leave WMEP became a resource question. Over the years, Hopkins has hired a cultural liaison and held cultural sensitivity trainings.
“Our professional development had decreased over the years with WMEP,” said Hopkins Superintendent John Schultz, who will soon become the superintendent of Edina. “Our teachers were getting a lot of their professional development related to integration within our district.”
Eden Prairie came close to leaving. But after the district gave notice of intent to withdraw in November, WMEP came back with an offer to cut its $150,900 annual bill, said Elaine Larabee, Eden Prairie school board chair.
Kimberly Quick, a policy associate with the Century Foundation, a nonpartisan think tank, has studied national integration efforts. She said these withdrawals can diminish integration. But as districts become more diverse, she said they must look inward to work on ending segregation.
“But there are ways for them to do that while participating in interdistrict programs,” she said.
More than 40 Twin Cities and metro area superintendents have formed Reimagine Minnesota in response to a 2015 lawsuit filed against the state, arguing that public schools were segregating students by race and socioeconomic status. Though the Minnesota Court of Appeals court rejected the lawsuit March 13, the collective has held community meetings around the metro with parents, students and education advocates to develop a metro-wide solution to segregation.
The solution is no longer moving students around, said attorney Paula Forbes, a facilitator for the group.
“What we are trying to do is move those beliefs out of the way and say, ‘What does a new school model look like?’ ” she said.
Although Spring Lake Park is leaving EMID, the school district is joining forces with several districts including Mounds View, to form the North Suburban Post-Secondary Success Consortium, to work on forming higher education partnerships and developing a diverse a workforce.
And even for dropout districts like Hopkins and Edina, there still may be interest in WMEP’s student programs such as the Civil Rights Research Experience.
About 105 students from WMEP’s member districts took part in a March 25 program where they shared experiences with race and racism. Urji Abdalla, a 17-year-old junior from Eden Prairie High School, became emotional when sharing her story about police brutality. Unlike students at her high school, she said, she felt like the students in the room could relate. “They have been through the same struggle,” she said.
As suburban student bodies continue to diversify, Edina Superintendent Ric Dressen said every district is assessing what their next steps might be.
“We are in an evolutionary time,” Dressen said. “How do we evolve our school districts? We have to keep reflecting on how our needs are changing.”