It’s been an amazing first year in the Minneapolis Public Schools for Stacia Nelson’s daughter, a kindergartner at Kenny Community School in southwest Minneapolis.
“Fantastic school. I can tell the principal and the teachers have been together a long time,” she said. “They have a rhythm. They have a plan.”
But a sweeping proposal to radically reshape the Minneapolis school system, including reducing and relocating magnet schools and drawing new school boundaries to achieve better racial balance, has left Nelson and other parents dismayed over the potential effect on their children.
Many say the plan offers too little detail about what their kids will be learning and who will teach them, while going too far in moving thousands of children to desegregate schools in north and northeast Minneapolis. Opposition to the plan is growing among white and affluent families in south and southwest neighborhoods, parents who say they’ve long supported equity in the public schools but are now contemplating abandoning the district altogether.
“They’re turning everything on its head,” Nelson said of the Comprehensive District Design (CDD) plan scheduled for a vote in April. “I am a believer in facts and data and direction. And it doesn’t make sense to roll the dice on our kids.”
But Kenneth Eban, a leader in the Advancing Equity Coalition of parents and others pushing CDD as a necessary first step toward fairness, said the district’s history of shortchanging children of color requires bold action. Even if it’s short on details.
“It’s heartbreaking that a city considered so progressive and so blue really doesn’t care about what is happening to children of color in Minneapolis Public Schools,” Eban said. “We cannot keep nibbling around the edges. CDD allows us to fix the foundation.”
For generations, black, Hispanic, American Indian and Asian students in Minneapolis’ public schools have lagged well behind their white counterparts in reading and math proficiency. District officials acknowledge that lack of access to the district’s most popular programs has played a role. While schools in whiter and more affluent neighborhoods host some of the city’s most successful schools and programs, such programs are hard to find in the north and northeast. One result has been an exodus of black families from Minneapolis schools.
“The system that we have set up has contributed to those injustices and the disparities that we have in our academics and our enrollment,” Superintendent Ed Graff said at a recent public listening session at Roosevelt High School.
About 80% of schools in north and northeast Minneapolis are half empty. And about 80% of the students who left the district last year are students of color — half of them black.
Facing an anticipated budget shortfall of nearly $20 million, officials hope the CDD will stanch the flow of students out of the district, reduce race and class segregation and slash transportation costs. They intend to use those savings to boost classroom instruction.
Plans under consideration include cutting the number of magnet schools and moving them to the center of the city, eliminating K-8 schools and switching to only K-5 and 6-8 schools. Attendance boundaries for community schools also would shrink or expand, affecting more than 60% of Minneapolis students.
Putting more students in underused buildings will bring more funding to those schools, officials said. More money means more appealing class offerings. One way the district is leaning to boost enrollment at North Academy high school — with 326 students filling just 17.5% of the building — is to stretch its attendance area farther to the southwest. According to the most recent proposed school boundaries map, North’s redrawn attendance area would cut a swath out of an area that’s been sending students to Southwest High School.
Karen DeVet, the district’s chief operations officer, acknowledged that the plan seeks to redistribute resources to schools on the North Side — money that for years left with black students who were bused to magnet schools in the south and southwest. “We understand the angst that comes with change,” DeVet said.
It’s more than angst, said Melanie LaMere, whose daughters attend Anthony Middle School and would go to Southwest under current boundaries.
Her oldest, Josie, will likely stay at Southwest when the redesign is expected to take effect in 2021. But her youngest, Georgia, is a grade behind her and would likely be rezoned to attend North.
“The bottom line is that north is not a safe neighborhood,” LaMere said. “As a parent, I’m allowed to say … that I worry about my teenage daughter busing across the city to a neighborhood that’s not that safe.”
LaMere said she knows others who share her concerns, but they are “staying quiet because it’s … so personal and it’s painful and it turns into a discussion about race and class and that’s really hard.”
District leaders are expected to present the full CDD to the school board’s Committee of the Whole on March 24.
That timeline alarms Kate Rogers, whose twin boys are first-graders at Lake Harriet Community School. She’s urging officials to study its impact more thoroughly. While the process began two years ago, she said, many of its more sweeping proposals have come forward in just the past few months. Some run counter to the district’s own data, such as a proposal to discontinue K-8 schools despite data showing benefits for student behavior and academic performance.
“No one is against the general goals of this plan,” she said. “But the way it goes about it leaves a lot to be desired. The math just doesn’t add up.”
Such as the idea that it will reduce segregation in the Minneapolis schools. Dara Moskowitz Grumdahl, who has two children in the district, said if Minneapolis dismantles a handful of integrated K-8 schools, it would actually make several south Minneapolis community schools whiter and more affluent. And, at a time when the school district has to cut $19 million, she said she doubts it is going to create several new magnet programs at the center of town.
“Who would fall for that?” she asked. “Apparently, everyone.”
To improve North Side schools, Lake Harriet parent Jason Burgmaier said, the district should replicate successful programs in the south — and focus on better hiring and training of teachers and administrators while improving school climate and safety. Instead, he said, officials are using “the nuclear option.”
“The plan falls apart when you look at the details,” he said in an e-mail. “And the details do not support the conclusions touted by the district.”
Bob Walser, a school board member who lives in the East Isles area, wants to heed the pleas from Somali and Latino parents desperate to save their K-8 schools. He also wants more data and study before voting.
“No one would deny the equity problem. The achievement gap is absolutely real and needs attention,” Walser said. “But, using my best judgment, do I see anything in this plan offering meaningful services to underserved communities? I have to say, ‘No.’ ”
Kale Duden, a Fergus Falls native who chose to move to the North Side 15 years ago because of its diversity, has seen enough. She supports the CDD.
The mother of a seventh-grader at Olson Middle School and a third-grader at Loring Elementary, she applauds the district’s goal of boosting education funding for North Side schools. She’s seen firsthand how North Side schools lack accelerated programs enjoyed by South Side schools. Her daughter, a district spelling bee champion, has had few opportunities for additional enrichment classes.
But Duden, who is white, said the push for equity isn’t really about her kids. “My job as a parent is to care about all the children in my neighborhood,” she said.
Asia Givens, whose son is a third-grader at Pillsbury Elementary, praises the CDD “as a great opportunity for North Side and northeast families to get what they deserve.”
For years, she said, it’s been too easy for white parents to ignore the inequities faced by “black and brown children.” While she also wants to see more detail — especially how the schools will address elevating the number of teachers of color and addressing black student achievement — the protests of white parents in the south and southwest aren’t persuasive.
“They have to understand that equitable doesn’t look fair in their eyes because they’re used to having things their way,” Givens said. “This doesn’t take away from their resources. It’s just making the playing field level.”
Staff Writer Ryan Faircloth contributed to this report.