Stephanie Gasca believes in the mission of a plan to radically reshape the Minneapolis school system. Students on the city’s North Side have long been shorted of the district’s most desired programs, and a proposal backed by Minneapolis Public Schools leaders aims to redistribute resources in a more equitable manner.
But Gasca, a north Minneapolis parent, worries leaders are focusing too much on reshuffling students and resources and not enough on issues that underlie the achievement gap between students of color and their white classmates. She said the district should have a plan to make sure every school has a safe and inclusive climate and teachers who are experienced and culturally competent.
“As far as the overall school environment, there’s still so many things that need to be addressed and none of this stuff is being talked about,” said Gasca, who has children enrolled at Anwatin Middle School and North High School.
On paper, north Minneapolis seems poised to gain the most from the sweeping proposal known as the Comprehensive District Design (CDD). North Side students would have access to three magnet schools and a career and technical education hub. Even so, parents and educators have mixed feelings about the CDD and disappointment in how the district has managed its rollout.
While some North Siders hail the plan as a long-overdue disruption to the status quo, others say it doesn’t go far enough. And many are skeptical about whether it will curb declining enrollment or reduce race and class segregation.
For years, students of color in Minneapolis have lagged behind white students in reading and math proficiency. District officials say lack of access to popular academic programs has played a role. Such programs are hard to find at schools in north and northeast Minneapolis. That inequity has contributed to an exodus of black families from the district.
About 80% of schools in north and northeast are half empty, and about 80% of the students who left the district last year are students of color — half of them black.
“I see the CDD as a response to what a lot of families of color have been saying for so long,” said Nafeesah Muhammad, an English teacher at Patrick Henry High School. “If we wait and do nothing, it’s going to get worse.”
The makeup of the district has led to more segregated schools, a growing achievement gap and worse outcomes for schools on the North Side. District leaders say their proposal to redraw attendance boundaries and reduce and relocate magnet programs will help achieve better racial balance. Moving more students into underused buildings will bring more funding — and therefore more appealing class offerings — to these schools.
Without systemic change, the district would have to close a “significant number” of underenrolled schools to address an expected budget shortfall of nearly $20 million.
“The majority of those schools would be in north Minneapolis and northeast,” said Eric Moore, the district’s chief of accountability, research and equity. “That’s problematic because those schools are underenrolled, in many cases, based upon policies that the district has [enacted].”
While most parents agree a major overhaul is needed, many have pushed back on the redistricting plan, which could shuffle thousands of Minneapolis students to new schools. They say the district has offered few details on how the reshuffling will address the achievement gap. And they argue that some of the more sweeping proposals, which have come forward in the past few months, run counter to the district’s data and deserve more scrutiny.
Some North Side parents believe the district has not adequately addressed school safety and climate. Gasca said she had to pull her daughter, Kennedy, out of Anwatin Middle School earlier this academic year because other students were harassing and hitting her on a regular basis.
“This had been going on for months,” Gasca said, and “the school wasn’t communicating properly.” She kept her daughter home for five weeks because “that’s how long it took for the school and the district to work with us.”
School administrators and educators need to be held accountable for the culture within their buildings, said North Side parent Sharon El-Amin. It will take strong leadership and culturally competent teachers to woo back families who left the district, she added.
“The trust has been broken within our school system,” said El-Amin, whose son graduated from North High last year.
District officials say they are crafting a plan to address school climate, starting with a set of values and standards that will guide staff in their engagement with students and families. The district will present these standards to school principals in June, Moore said.
Several task forces will be formed down the line to examine family and student engagement, academics, professional development and human resources. Officials also say that stabilizing enrollment will decrease teacher churn and improve school environments.
School board member KerryJo Felder, who represents the North Side, said the plan does not go far enough. It still shorts students of the programs that parents and teachers have long asked for.
The CDD would add a career and technical education hub at North High School, with programs ranging from computer science to robotics. What the school really needs is trade programs, Felder said, but those would be at Roosevelt High School on the city’s South Side.
North Side families — including many Hmong, Somali and Latino parents — have also asked for a K-8 school and a Spanish dual immersion magnet, Felder said. They would get neither under the plans being proposed.
“We’re over here begging for it, fighting to get it on the North Side and we couldn’t get it?” said Felder, who has drawn up her own redesign plan and presented it to her school board colleagues. She said her proposal would reconfigure Cityview, a K-5 elementary, into a K-8 and bring trades to North High and a Spanish immersion magnet to Nellie Stone Johnson Elementary.
That might quell the concerns of Natasha Gutierrez, who has two children enrolled in Emerson Spanish Immersion. While Emerson would keep its magnet program under the CDD, her kids might have to reapply for enrollment. There are no other Spanish immersion magnets as close to the family’s North Side home.
“Why start that if they’re not going to let the kids at least finish out their time at their current school?” Gutierrez said. District leaders said last week that they may grandfather in magnet school students to let them finish their education.
North High School Principal Mauri Friestleben has reservations. Like many parents and teachers, she feels the district crafted its proposal without engaging those it would impact the most. She also said it’s “a bit of a stretch” to think that shifting boundaries and programs will help solve the achievement gap. But as imperfect as the CDD may be, she said, people should not lose sight of its purpose.
“It evolved out of a need,” Friestleben said. “Any of us, myself included, can feel frustrated with the process. But we have to be grown up enough and mature enough to separate out the process from the plan.”