Half of Minneapolis Public School students can't read at grade level — a statistic that has long held true — and some parents are losing patience, showing up to protests holding signs that say "literacy for all."

School board members are also starting to show frustration with what they see as a lack of progress on teaching kids to read and write. Despite some gains, a stubborn achievement gap persists between white students and students of color.

The issue factored into the board's 5-4 decision last month to begin negotiations to renew Superintendent Ed Graff's contract. The four members who voted against it cited his leadership in the area of literacy as a primary factor in their "no" votes. In an evaluation of the superintendent, the board as a whole rated him as a "developing" leader in the category of literacy and an "effective" and "highly effective" leader across areas of district finances, human resources and student support.

"Progress is not a straight line," Graff said in a statement released by the district. "I welcome input from the Board of Education and am using that feedback to better shape and direct MPS momentum after a difficult two years."

Board Members Adriana Cerrillo, Sharon El-Amin, Siad Ali and Josh Pauly voted against negotiating a new contract with Graff. Cerrillo spoke during the meeting, saying the lack of a concrete literacy plan was her "number one reason" for voting no. Pauly and El-Amin also said they feel Graff hasn't done enough to close achievement gaps throughout his five years in the role.

Controversy surrounding literacy curricula is nothing new to Minneapolis. For decades, different camps of academics, educators and parents have debated various approaches to teaching children to read.

Minneapolis schools also faced community ire six years ago, when the reading curriculum included negative racial and cultural stereotypes. Those materials have since been replaced and a new curriculum was adopted in 2017.

Since summer, the protesting parents — part of a group called Minneapolis Academics Advocacy — have been critical of the curriculum and called for additional training for teachers in teaching children to read. They see the district's "birth-adult literacy framework," presented to the school board in May, as lacking concrete steps to close achievement gaps.

District leaders say the framework, which outlines the values and beliefs that will drive lessons, was a necessary first step.

"Without a strong, shared foundation of what MPS literacy should be and the expected practices, every new program or practice has become a trend and unsustainable," district spokeswoman Julie Schultz Brown wrote in a statement.

Work plans based on the framework were initially expected by August, but are now set for December, said Aimee Fearing, the district's senior academic officer. The first increases in rates of literacy among students are expected during the 2022-2023 school year.

So far, taking steps toward increasing the rates of grade-level readers has involved requiring educators to take additional professional development on literacy and placing literacy coaches and specialists in each elementary school. Six elementary schools now have literacy coaching support from Groves Academy — a St. Louis Park-based educational nonprofit focused on literacy instruction — and the district has committed to offering better communication with parents about their students' performance on required literacy assessments.

Some of the materials and professional development have been paid for with funding from the American Rescue Plan.

Elementary students who struggle with reading can get support from the literacy coaches at school, but it may not be enough, said Sara Spafford Freeman, one of the parents leading the Minneapolis Academics Advocacy group. More affluent families can hire private tutors to help their child catch up, further stretching the achievement gap.

Distance learning during the pandemic made it hard to collect comprehensive test results. Pre-pandemic test results suggest that nearly 80% of the district's white students are proficient in reading, while the percentage of proficient Hispanic, African American and American Indian students hovered around 20-30%.

Eric Moore, the district's accountability, research and equity officer, said leaders "lose sleep" over those numbers.

It's an issue many districts have struggled with over time, Fearing said: "I'm not making excuses, but if there was a magic bullet to quickly close that gap, all [districts] would be doing it."

In a December 2020 board meeting focused on literacy, Graff acknowledged the extended time taken to form a literacy plan. He said he believed the district was in a better place than it was five years earlier when it came to teaching students to read, but outcomes were far from where he wanted .

"I definitely understand the urgency and wanting to move us forward," he said. "It's not something that is just going to happen without a stronger commitment, attention, focus and time."

Mara Klecker • 612-673-4440