Minnesota schools, reopening amid a pandemic and a national reckoning over systemic racism, are sharpening their focus on the state's decadeslong problems with achievement gaps and educational disparities.

Around the state, schools are adding new staff to focus on equity in classroom instruction and hiring, and approving policies that define — and disavow — racism. Some are contemplating changes to classroom materials and curriculum. Groups of students, alumni, teachers and principals have organized to lobby superintendents and school boards, calling on them to be more active and outspoken to combat racism in schools.

Educators say the momentum sparked by George Floyd's killing by Minneapolis police, and the disparities laid bare by the pandemic, may do more to transform schools than other efforts of the recent past. Jessica Davis, a racial equity coach for St. Louis Park Public Schools — and the 2019 Minnesota Teacher of the Year — said the disruptions created by all of the year's events make for a moment that schools should seize if they hope to fix the problems that have been talked about for years.

"If not now, when?" she said.

Goals related to equity and inclusion have long been a part of many Minnesota schools' plans. Teachers and staff members around the state have been trained to recognize their biases and to design lesson plans that reflect their students' wide-ranging backgrounds and experiences.

But this summer, as people protested and demanded change from government and businesses, a growing number of students and educators in Minnesota have shared a similar message: Those changes haven't been enough.

In Minneapolis, North High School Principal Mauri Friest­leben created a group for school principals — now with more than 160 members across the metro — to "dismantle racist policies and practices that exist within the state's educational system." The "Good Trouble" coalition, named for a quote from the late U.S. Rep. John Lewis, aims to provide a public accounting of principals' work to "de-center whiteness" in schools.

Lisa Pawelak, an organizer of the group and principal of Lucy Laney Elementary School in north Minneapolis, said that means re-examining things from the way schools write and use standardized tests to the power of groups that tend to have primarily white people in leadership roles, like parent-teacher organizations and school employees' unions. Pawelak said principals need to get specific about the changes they want to make and be public about their commitments.

"People are skeptical: 'You guys in education have been talking about this for years, and some of you have been in education for years — how and where are you going to put your money where your mouth is?' " she said.

Examining gaps

Minnesota's educational gaps are stark; the most recent statewide test scores showed that 63% of white students met proficiency standards in math, compared with 26% of Black and American Indian students. Graduation rates have ticked up in recent years, but white students are still more likely to earn a diploma than students of color.

Some educators and students say schools should be reflecting more on how their policies and culture affects those numbers — and what they can do to change it.

In Minnetonka, a group of students and alumni have spent the past few months writing to school board members and district leaders and holding public demonstrations, calling for the district to diversify its teaching staff, overhaul its curriculum and add clothing with hate symbols to the list of items banned under school dress codes.

Lena Pak, a Minnetonka High School senior and member of the Minnetonka Coalition for Equitable Education, said the group has already had some success: The school board voted this summer to incorporate some of the group's requests into the district's plans for the year. But Pak said she and others intend to keep up the pressure.

"I think it's going to keep being like this for a while, because I don't see any big radical changes happening anytime soon," she said.

Immediately after Floyd's death, several school districts issued statements or passed resolutions pledging to do more for equity in education.

The school board in the Rosemount-Apple Valley-Eagan district formed a new equity advisory council and got a flood of applications from students, teachers and community members who wanted to participate. Superintendent Mary Kreger said the group is just getting started, but some efforts are already underway, like expanding the diversity of teachers in the schools.

"We're really thrilled that we have more teachers of color, reflecting our students in a more real way than we've had in the past," she said.

'Equity vision' in Mankato

Outside the metro area, Mankato Area Public Schools Superintendent Paul Peterson said his district is working with the St. Paul-based Minnesota Education Equity Partnership to develop an "equity vision and framework" for the district, with input from community members.

In Rochester, the school board recently approved an "equity statement" that spelled out the district's commitment to diverse hiring, ensuring staff members "work to undo historical and current racist policies or actions both inside and outside the classroom" and support students regardless of their race, gender identity or the language they speak.

Change takes time

Rochester Superintendent Michael Muñoz said the statement is just one step in a broader equity plan. Over the next two years, the district intends to hire more staff members to tackle that issue, including a new equity position in the district office and a position focused on changing curriculum.

Muñoz said he thinks more people are becoming aware of the gaps that have been troubling schools for years.

"I think communities have recognized that there are some inequities in our state and country that are really creating some huge barriers and getting in the way of our students," he said.

School leaders acknowledge that many of the changes will take time. Few expect sweeping changes in a few months, or even this year.

Keenan Jones, a fourth-grade teacher in the Hopkins school district, said teachers are making changes in their own classrooms, in large and small ways. He said he's taking more time to get to know students and their families and learn about how they're handling this year's many challenges. That change, he said, is just one of the ways he can help transform students' experience — and ensure everyone in his class is ready and able to learn.

"Why not take this as an opportunity to not just talk equity and anti-racism, but to change how we teach?" he said.