Skip and Julia Singer never really considered enrolling their sons in Minneapolis public schools even though they were assigned to some of the district’s best schools.
Instead, the Singers chose the Fine Arts Interdisciplinary Resource School for its emphasis on the arts and its efforts to enroll a racially diverse group of students from across the west metro area.
Now hundreds of families, like the Singers, face uncertainty about the FAIR School’s future as the West Metro Education Program (WMEP) considers a plan to relinquish control of the downtown campus to Minneapolis Public Schools and hand over control of the Crystal campus to Robbinsdale School District 281.
“We don’t really trust Minneapolis,” Julia Singer said. “If they assume control from WMEP, it’s not going to be the school that we have gone to all these years.”
The West Metro Education Program and the East Metro Integration District (EMID), two special integration districts that serve the Twin Cities, are both facing big changes as inner-ring suburbs grow increasingly diverse and the school districts they serve rely less on them to achieve racial balance.
Several east metro school districts are contemplating leaving EMID, saying the costs of membership outweigh the benefits of the district, which has changed its focus from magnet schools to professional development and student programs.
The upheaval comes at a time when many education leaders say racial equity work in schools is needed more than ever.
“I don’t believe we are living in a post-racial society at all,” said Kathy Griebel, principal at Harambee Elementary, which had been part of the east metro district. “Personally, I am 100 percent convinced that integration matters.”
Dozens of FAIR school parents and students made impassioned pleas to keep both campuses running exactly as they are at a recent WMEP board meeting.
Kari Derksen said her son Levi, a first-grader who has sensory processing disorder, has flourished at the downtown FAIR school and learned to express himself through its music and theater programs.
“He is safe here,” she said. “He is taken care of here. And in this transition, I just ask that you keep him so.”
But the meeting also made clear that board members are leaning strongly toward giving FAIR’s Crystal campus to Robbinsdale and the downtown campus to Minneapolis. A decision is expected Feb. 11.
Both districts have signaled that they want the two buildings even though they come with about $1 million in deferred maintenance costs.
Robbinsdale Superintendent Aldo Sicoli told FAIR parents that his district would “jump at the chance to keep the arts program, and the focus on integration.”
“It’s what we’re set up to do,” he said, pointing to the district’s recent investment in a Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Math program launched at Olson Elementary.
Minneapolis’ incoming interim Superintendent Michael Goar said the district is discussing treating the FAIR facility as a Community Partnership School, which gives selected schools more autonomy from the central office.
Both districts, however, have yet to provide many other details about their long-terms plans for the schools.
Interim WMEP Superintendent Keith Lester said he hopes to have those plans soon.
“We have to give parents assurances,” he said. “And we have to give them in writing. Trust is a problem.”
Lessons in the east metro?
Some east metro parents are still raw from the switch-over of their schools, which officially happened last summer when the Roseville district began running Harambee and the Perpich Center for Arts Education took on Crosswinds Art and Science School.
Eric Celeste, a Crosswinds and Harambee parent, loved the schools for their celebration of diversity, arts programs and year-round schedule. One of his children is gay and the other has special needs. Both kids found “respect and acceptance.”
Crosswinds was “deeply damaged” during the transition, Celeste said. Even at Harambee, where things went better, it was jarring, he said.
The schools are run by separate entities, as is being suggested with the FAIR schools, which resulted in different schedules and moving a grade level to a new school.
“Already the two schools, which had been managed in an integrated way, are diverging,” he said.
But Griebel said the transition went well for Harambee.
At Crosswinds, where there were disagreements about who would assume control, she said: “[Crosswinds] had a good outcome, it just took a little more time.”
Other things were lost, Celeste added. For instance, now there are no real classrooms for teachers to model techniques taught in professional development sessions.
“Throwing away the schools was not the answer,” he said.
Districts at a crossroads
Meanwhile, member districts are pulling out of the east metro initiative.
West St. Paul-Mendota Heights-Eagan and Spring Lake Park recently submitted letters stating their intent to leave, as South Washington County did last year. Inver Grove Heights and the South St. Paul school districts also are considering leaving.
The cost of being a member of the integration district — about $150,000 annually for a district West St. Paul’s size — outweighs the benefits of belonging, said Nancy Allen-Mastro, superintendent of West St. Paul-Mendota Heights-Eagan.
The departing members say they can offer the same services internally, or partner with districts and organizations to provide programming, such as a college prep program for students in the academic middle.
EMID leaders are a little uneasy at the notion of members pulling out.
“It’s always a concern when you have members change,” said Jean Lubke, EMID’s executive director.
Some experts say school districts that do leave have some big questions to ask themselves.
“Are they large enough to be able to really carry off a strong agenda that would support integration … providing effective services for a more diverse population of students?” asked Karen Seashore, a University of Minnesota education professor. “Small districts have a hard time doing that on their own.”
Seashore added that the desegregation challenges are in many ways just as formidable as they ever were.
“Schools are, if anything, more segregated now, certainly in the inner-ring suburbs and the two big cities,” she said. “The needs are actually greater now.”