Minneapolis Public Schools Superintendent Ed Graff sharpened the focus of his strategic plan this week, vowing to make sweeping changes that he says will dismantle some of the racist district practices and policies that have contributed to the achievement gap between white students and students of color.

In his update at Tuesday's school board meeting, Graff said his retooled plan would pursue systemic change with a keen focus on equity to boost learning outcomes for minority students in the state's third-largest school district.

He also recommended delaying the board's final vote on the plan from December to April, with some board actions on incremental steps slated to happen in the coming months. The expanded timeline, he said, would allow for more community engagement and enough time to continue assessing families' feedback.

"The policies and practices currently in place are yielding inequitable results," Graff told board members. "While some may focus on students and families, we believe that the system is designed to produce the results that we are seeing and advantaging some and disadvantaging others."

Big proficiency gap

The 2018-19 results for the state reading and math tests show a major gulf between student groups in the Minneapolis Public Schools, with a 51 percentage-point difference in reading proficiency between white and minority students and a 52 percentage-point gap in math — a disparity that has contributed to an exodus of families of color in the district. Gaps also remain in graduation rates, with 87% of white students in the district graduating on time compared with 62% of nonwhite students.

Graff also pointed to the district's policy on the school-choice lottery, which he said gives an edge to families with stable homes and computer access to gain entrance to their preferred schools. Highly mobile and low-income families and often families of color who apply after the deadline, he said, are placed where there are remaining slots, regardless of their choice.

In the original draft, rolled out in April, Graff's initial priorities included redrawing attendance boundaries for some schools and reassigning students to new schools. Although not the focus this time around, Graff said, changes to the designated "pathways" that lead students from a particular elementary school to middle school and on to high school are still a "powerful consideration." Graff said changes to school pathways would create a level of consistency in the system as students move from kindergarten to high school.

Many parents and staff disagree, arguing that redrawing school attendance zones to fill up under-enrolled schools would lead to segregation and a drastic drop in the district's overall enrollment.

At Tuesday's school board meeting, Graff announced that his team is re-evaluating his initial school "pathway" recommendations pending a study that will examine attendance boundaries, school choice and placement policies.

"I certainly hope to be able to come up with a remedy … that would offer those options for families in a more equitable fashion," Graff said.

His new strategic plan includes calls for ensuring students have access to career and technical education options and equipping all schools with adequate special education services. In addition, the revised plan would look at reconfiguring grade levels for elementary and middle schools and improving school climate and culture.

Graff's proposal also calls for restoring parents' trust in the district by providing rigorous academics, a strategy district officials are using to boost enrollment. Last year, nearly 1,500 students left for neighboring school districts. This new school year, Minneapolis' overall enrollment was down by 743 students, which translates to between $5 million and $8 million less in revenue.

Immigrant parents speak

The board laid out its values and expressed some support for the new plan, with some board members reminding staff to improve public transparency during the planning process.

During Tuesday's meeting, a group of immigrant parents demanded that their children be given enrollment priority to their preferred district schools. Meanwhile, Advancing Equity Coalition, a group of community organizations and education advocates, lauded Graff for monitoring and prioritizing equity in his plan.

Board Member Josh Pauly, whose priorities include integration, enrolling minority students in advanced and International Baccalaureate classes and improving their overall academics, said he wants to see detailed data that informed Graff's proposed plan and information that shows that such changes will not boost segregation.

Faiza Mahamud • 612-673-4203