Even though schools are shuttered and much of society has come to a standstill, the proposal to radically reshape Minneapolis Public Schools is still moving forward amid objections from anxious parents who are confined to their homes.
The school board recently approved a resolution enabling members to meet virtually during the pandemic to discuss and potentially vote on the district’s Comprehensive District Design plan. Public comments will be accepted in “alternative forms.”
That’s a problem for the hundreds of parents and teachers who have packed school board meetings to capacity in recent months to weigh in on the proposal. The district’s sweeping plan to redraw attendance boundaries and reduce and relocate magnet schools to the center of the city is controversial. It aims to create a more equitably resourced district through a major restructuring but would cut certain programs and shift many students to new schools in the process.
“We feel like this is the right thing to do and this is the right time to make these changes,” Superintendent Ed Graff recently told reporters. “We’re not wanting to have our students wait any longer.”
The need for systemic change is clear and urgent, district leaders and supporters say. The restructuring is meant to address racial disparities, a nagging achievement gap and an anticipated budget shortfall of nearly $20 million. Without action, the district might have to permanently close a significant number of under-enrolled schools.
Critics say pushing forward with the plan during a public health crisis is not just insensitive, it’s offensive and perpetuates the belief that the district has not listened to families and teachers.
Minnesotans have been ordered to stay home unless going out is absolutely necessary until at least Friday to slow the virus’ spread. Gov. Tim Walz also ordered public schools across the state to stay closed until May 4.
The school board meetings, tentatively scheduled for April 14 and April 28, could each be pushed back two weeks if public participation is “significantly restricted,” district leaders say.
“The fact that they’re moving forward with this is so offensive to our families and educators,” said Greta Callahan, a Bethune Elementary kindergarten teacher and recording secretary for the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers, which opposes the district’s proposal. “It just seems like a lot to put on people right now … as they’re literally surviving.”
School board chairwoman Kim Ellison said members are still mulling formats for public comment, which is “absolutely going to occur.”
She is speaking weekly with other government officials about how best to conduct public engagement from a distance.
Some options local governing bodies have come up with include having residents call in to meetings or submit written testimony that can be read for the record.
Ellison noted the district publicly released its final redesign plan nearly three weeks before the next meeting. Such materials have typically not been released for review until days before school board meetings.
“We are adapting the way we do business and slowing things down to make sure that everybody can be on the same page,” Ellison said.
But the redistricting may not be top of mind for everyone during the COVID-19 pandemic. Many parents are homebound, balancing not only their own jobs or a potential loss of income but also how to accommodate their children’s learning. Educators are scrambling to reinvent their curricula to be taught from a distance.
That’s partly why Callahan thinks the district should hit pause and focus on the present.
“We see moving forward as only further marginalizing and leaving those behind who may not have access,” she said.
Others believe the pandemic has shined a light on the systemic inequities the district is trying to address.
While many students have access to the devices and internet connection needed to learn remotely, some of their classmates have neither.
Such disparities mirror the imbalance that exists in Minneapolis Public Schools. Most of the district’s magnet programs are clustered on the city’s South Side.
District officials say lack of access to popular academic programs has led to worse outcomes for North Side students. That’s why leaders want to centralize magnet schools and career and technical education programs.
“Why would we delay something that can reduce that inequity educationally?” said Jenny Jendro, a south Minneapolis parent who has children enrolled at Hale and Field elementary schools. “We’re seeing this even in our own district.”
Alexis Mann, a high school English teacher at Harrison Education Center in north Minneapolis, agrees that swift action is needed. The structure of the district, she said, has perpetuated an achievement gap between students of color and their white classmates.
But Mann said the implementation of distance learning should be front and center.
She worries that voting on the redesign now will take attention away from students at a critical time.
“Focusing on the future climate seems superfluous to me because we have to deal with the current climate that we are looking at,” Mann said.
“How are we going to determine measured growth under distance learning? How are we going to determine who’s passing, who’s failing? That’s what we need to be looking at.”