Minneapolis Public Schools administrators are staying true to their timeline for the district’s sweeping and controversial redistricting plan, despite continued calls to pause the rollout until the COVID-19 pandemic has passed.
The plan will redraw attendance boundaries and relocate magnet schools to the center of the city — moves that leaders say will save on transportation costs and help address racial disparities. But parents have balked at moving forward amid the uncertainty of the pandemic and adding more upheaval after the challenges of distance learning.
Over the next several weeks, families in the district will receive a letter explaining their students’ new school for the 2021-2022 academic year and outlining other school options based on their address. Parents can learn more during a virtual event on Dec. 5, and schools will host virtual open houses over the next two months.
Administrators are considering how the shifts will affect students who’ve already had their academic experience upended by the pandemic, said Eric Moore, the district’s senior accountability, research and equity officer. The Minneapolis schools have been operating with distance learning since the beginning of the year.
“There are real questions about the impact of change when students are already experiencing lots of changes versus doing so later when they are feeling like things are getting back to normal,” Moore said. “There are no easy or right answers here, but we are making decisions with the best information possible and with a focus on the impact for our most underserved students.”
School board members approved the plan during a virtual meeting in May, drawing rebukes from many parents and teachers who disagreed with the approach and the timing of the vote. The most recent school board meeting Nov. 10 drew another large wave of similar public comments.
Board Member Bob Walser had submitted a resolution to halt the plan’s implementation, counting on support from Board Members KerryJo Felder and Ira Jourdain. The trio had voted against the plan in May. But Walser said he removed the item from the agenda when Jourdain pulled his support shortly before the meeting.
The pandemic and the aftermath of the killing of George Floyd have already traumatized Minneapolis students, particularly those of color, Walser said at the meeting. Requiring children and families to change schools next year is “heaping one trauma on top of another,” Walser said, adding that he feels that community voices were not considered by administrators intent on moving forward with the plan’s timeline.
Two dozen parents left voice mails for the board’s public comment period, almost all of them expressing support for delaying the next steps of the plan during the pandemic. Many worried that the plan adds more stress to struggling families and will remove the stability that students have had during this challenging year.
District staff have not introduced any major changes to the plan since May, though the implementation plan for specialty schools was pushed back. The deadline to create a “climate framework” to define the culture and shared values of the district was also delayed to allow for more feedback from students and staff.
The board recently approved new bell schedules as a part of the redistricting. The new schedule will shift bell times at elementary and middle schools; some schedules will change by as little as 15 minutes while others will shift by two hours. The new start times are designed to provide more equitable access to after-school programs and save on transportation costs.
Board members will receive another update on the plan’s rollout during Tuesday’s meeting.
“The board told staff: If during the pandemic, this plan takes longer to implement, just let us know,” school board Chairwoman Kim Ellison said. “But staff is steadfast and saying ‘We’ve got this, we know what we’re doing and we can still move this thing along.’ ”
The pandemic has highlighted and exacerbated the racial disparities and inequities the district redesign is meant to address, Moore said. For more than a decade, Minneapolis schools have reported stark differences in average reading and math scores for low-income students and their wealthier peers, as well as for whites and students of color.
“We know it’s a difficult time, and students and families are facing a myriad of challenging and sometimes seemingly impossible situations,” he said. “Thinking of another loss and transition on top of that can be overwhelming. At the same time, many of our students cannot afford to wait for us to take action that will improve their access to a well-rounded education.”
Board Member Kimberly Caprini said that despite the uncertainties of the pandemic and what the next school year will look like, she wants the board and families to embrace the plan and its timeline.
“We cannot stop something that is inevitable,” she said at the Nov. 10 board meeting. “The change is not easy, but it’s necessary.”