by Carey L. Biron
Three months of vacant halls and silent classrooms ended this week as children flooded back into schools carrying new notebooks and waving at old friends. Like new students everywhere, they are nervous about the coming school year. But this year, in Minneapolis, they aren’t the only ones.
The Minneapolis Public School (MPS) system lost 5,500 students in the last five
years and is expected to lose 3,000 more in this year alone—a total drop
of around 22 percent in district enrollment. Each student garners the state an
average of $4,600 in state and federal funds, so every student that decides to
attend a charter, alternative or out-of-district school means a loss of thousands
of dollars in MPS revenue.
This attrition could not come at a worse time; the district has already experienced
$100 million in budget cuts in the last four years. Almost everyone with a stake
in the schools calls for a new strategy, but there is little agreement about what
the strategy should be.
The beginnings of what many hope will be an innovative plan will be set in motion
at an October 12 meeting of the school board.
“The next three months are crucial,” said board member Dennis Schapiro.
“That October 12th plan should be a very significant event in the history
of the district.”
In February of this year, former interim superintendent David Jennings announced
that the projected loss in students for the upcoming school session would mean
that the district would have more than 800 classrooms sitting empty. While critics
have since contested that number, everyone agrees there will be significantly
more classroom seats than students.
With a projected budget shortfall of $20 million this year, that’s a huge
revenue problem for the district, and some political dynamite. Jennings’
plan would have closed about half of those classrooms, including shuttering
several area schools. Public outcry following the announcement of the plan has
not necessarily changed the facts on the ground, but it has changed the way
that the district has decided to reorganize.
“Last spring, when the initial recommendation to close some schools was
made, there was a lot of public concern and a lot of people said, ‘Hey,
we’re not sure we were heard, we weren’t consulted on this,’”
recalled Allan Malkis, a consultant working with the Minneapolis-based KKE Architects.
In reaction to the public’s protest of what was seen as a bullheaded or
incompetent move by Jennings and his administration, the district has hired
two outside consulting groups. One, the Community Engagement Collaborative,
has been charged with gathering a range of information detailing what Minneapolitans
value in their public schools. The second, headed by KKE, is looking at the
spectrum of possibilities for use of the many school, non-school and administrative
buildings that the district owns.
“One of the exciting things is that the district is now asking the question
in terms of, ‘if in some buildings there aren’t as many students
as there used to be, what are other uses for that same building?’”
Malkis said. “What are other programs, agencies, or tenants that could
move in and provide services to the community out of the same building?”
Closing schools has always been a grueling and contentious issue, as communities
inevitably and rightly come to identify with their local schools. Recent debate
has often fallen between fiscal hardliners who want to close schools and cut
programs on one side, and outraged citizens charging mismanagement on the other.
The current approach, however, seems to offer a fairly levelheaded intermediate
approach that has won some widespread if grudging support. In addition to the
district being allowed to save some significant funds, neighborhoods may not
be outright losing their buildings and could potentially gain some needed services.
“We think that as social service agencies and schools are sharing space,
it’s a better use of tax dollars, and it provides better services to kids
and families,” said Joe Nathan, the director of the Center for Changing
Schools, housed at the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey Institute.
A recent KKE meeting at the Southeast Asian Community Council in North Minneapolis
drew about 60 parents from the Hmong community, who offered suggestions for
school services that would help their neighborhoods. Those gathered also took
the opportunity to air some of their grievances and demand answers to some questions—a
dynamic for which the consultants present weren’t necessarily prepared,
but a process that those citizens gathered clearly considered necessary and
overdue. The need for a variety of Hmong-specific services subsequently dominated
much of the evening’s dialogue.
“It would be very helpful to have an after-school program for translation
and explanation of classroom processes,”
suggested Cher Pho Namh. “Both for early childhood students, as well as
for all of the new arrivals.”
Input like this—as well as results from the dozens of other meetings scheduled
from August through October—will be collated, analyzed and, through the
lenses of a variety of consulting specialists, will be presented back to the
board in multiple scenarios for the October 12 meeting. Given the amount of
work and ramifications of the project, Malkis cautiously characterizes the deadline
as “very fast.”
When the schools have not responded to their communities, the results have been
disastrous, said Nathan. In 2001, when a number of Hmong parents in St. Paul
believed the schools were not meeting their needs, “they set up some charter
schools,” he said. “As soon as they started to leave, the district
started to do some of the things that the Hmong parents had asked them to do—hire
people who were Hmong to be in school offices for translation on the phone,
While MPS continues to hemorrhage students, in recent years many have questioned
the district’s priorities on student retention. “Dave Jennings hit
the nail on the head,” laughed Doug Mann, a school board candidate and
a longtime MPS critic. “He said that ‘parents who pull their kids
out of the schools are the ones who are dissatisfied with the service we are
providing.’ His solution was close down the schools, open up charter schools
... the boutique approach.”
The controversial charter school movement actually began here in Minnesota in
1991, at a time when district parents were also agitating for a return to smaller
neighborhood schools. Minneapolis’ many charter schools and unique open
enrollment policies give parents here a singular freedom of educational choice.
Beyond a simple increase in options, however, charter schools were supposed
to allow marketplace-style competition to force public schools into reforming
and, hopefully, becoming more responsive to their students’ evolving needs
and concerns. However, opponents say, since charter schools operate outside
of a traditional district budget but still run on taxpayer funds, they place
enormous additional strain on already-strapped systems. Not only do students
who leave the district take their federally-allotted monies with them, but they
may also take the most involved parents.
According to information from the 2003-2004 Minnesota Schools Survey, charter
school principals reported a positive trend in parental involvement nearly twice
as often as did public school principals.
As this school year begins, there are 24 charter schools in Minneapolis; a record
seven more opened up this year alone in Twin Cities suburbs and another 84 operate
elsewhere in the state.
Most urban areas in the United States have seen white middle-class students
flee the city schools, but Minneapolis has a different problem: a dramatic exodus
of low-income and minority students. Only this year has an explosion of white,
middle class, suburban students begun flooding into new and established charter
“I think we need to talk about why the charter schools are drawing so
many families of kids of color,” said board member Dennis Schapiro. “Those
may well be the families that could bring a lot to public schools, if we reach
them the right way. Obviously to have integrity in this you have to listen to
what the families of the city want.”
While the district’s two consulting groups conduct dozens of community
discussions through the board’s October 12 deadline, board candidate Doug
Mann says he has a couple of ideas as to why many poor and minority students
have lost their faith in the public schools.
“First off, we need to phase out this tracking system,” he said,
criticizing Minneapolis’ “ability grouping” approach as a
class- and race-based segregation holdover from the early 20th century. “Parents
of students who get assigned to the lowest ability tracks are a lot more likely
to pull their kids out of school,” he continued. “Most parents are
fine with the education their kids are getting in the high tracks. If they’ve
got younger kids coming up behind, they’re not going to be putting them
into these schools either. That’s why you have something of a snowball
Mann points to statistics showing that, during the past five years, African-American
K-3 enrollment has dropped close to 30 percent in the district, compared to
about seven percent for white kids.
In May of this year, the DC-based Education Trust released a stinging report
saying that Minnesota has the second-largest gap in the nation between black
and white scores for eighth-grade math and the fourth-largest gap for fourth-grade
reading. Minnesota has long been a leader in national education scores and,
indeed, according to the report, the state’s white eighth graders tested
best in the nation at math. Minnesota’s black students, however, tested
22 among 43 states. In fourth-grade reading, white students ranked 12, while
black students ranked 33.
year, 81 percent of Minnesota’s white third- and fifth-graders tested
higher than standard on the Minnesota Comprehensive Assessment Test, compared
to just 36 percent of black students; in reading, the difference was 70 to 23
Schools in more upper-to-middle-class Southwest Minneapolis have seen dramatically
less teacher and student turnover than have areas such as North Minneapolis.
Looking at these results, many people say African-American families seem to
be making a good decision in looking at other educational options.
“Minneapolis has this incredibly unequal distribution of teacher talent,
where high poverty neighborhoods get inexperienced teachers and the kids don’t
do as well,” said Mann, who served on a Minneapolis NAACP education advocacy
committee. “Plus, with this tracking system, kids in the upper levels
get significantly more advanced training and the gap essentially widens.”
While Nathan points out that such statistics prove that charters are filling
an important need, Schapiro cautions that the district may be heading in a problematic
“The kind of magnets that are popping up now—Hmong schools, Somali
schools, schools targeting African-American boys—those seem to move away
from what our ideal of public education is, which is a place to bring people
together, however imperfectly we’ve done that,” Schapiro emphasizes.
“So do you want to have public schools that are essentially identity politics
schools? I don’t think we’ve had that discussion yet; this will
probably push us in that direction.”
That’s easier said than done, however—particularly within the vicious
circle situation in which the MPS has found itself over the past four years.
“The fact that they don’t have as much money means that the class
size gets larger, they don’t have special people to take care of special
needs and so the economic impact by itself makes things a bit less attractive,”
explained AT, an MPS teacher who’s been with the district for nearly a
decade but wished to remain anonymous. “People tend then to move to districts
that are relatively stable because they aren’t getting the cuts and can
afford to have programs that Minneapolis can’t do. But can you do a better
job at student retention? Clearly the answer is yes. You can always do a better
In the long term, AT cautions that there’s only so much that the district
can do in the current political climate. “The political gurus in St. Paul
have decided that the extra money that Minneapolis used to get for the poor
and minority students is too much and has been carving that away,” he
Such sentiments mirror a rising number of voices charging national forces with
a two-decade attempt to gouge public school funding to pave the way for privatization.
In interviews with the Star Tribune last week, both Dave Jennings and state
representative Len Biernat (D-MPLS) leveled accusations that the system was
essentially “set up to fail.”
“It’s not going to get any easier,” warned AT, “and
there’s no indication, unless we change the political environment over
in St. Paul, that anything is going to happen.”
Until those changes take place, however, Minneapolis still has students to educate.
This year has seen a great deal of community input; multiple, externally-produced
plans; a new superintendent; and a back-against-the-wall attitude. Many hope
the board can come up with a better plan for student retention and the district’s
immediate fiscal situation can be evaluated and repaired.
Most dramatically, district budgets show a roughly 34 percent cut in teaching
positions since the 2001-2002 school year. Matching that number against the
22 percent drop in student enrollment over the past five years is enough to
set some parents to questioning. A look over the current budget’s breakdown,
however, shows that the budget for some administrative positions have increased
from last year; for example, a more than twofold increase in employee relations.
The new superintendent, Thandiwe Peebles, has a reputation for playing hardball
with teachers and some suggest that the district is gearing up for a rumble.
Earlier this year, the district sent layoff notices to more than 600 teachers
and 98 classroom aides. In order to make up that loss, the board instituted
a policy of “realignment”—allowing senior teachers to move
into subjects for which they are licensed but inexperienced. In late July, a
lawsuit was launched on behalf of some MPS teachers, challenging the “reasonableness”
of the realignment policy.
“It’s a disaster for the students and parents,” said Gregg
Corwin, the lawyer representing the case. “A lot of teachers are bidding
into areas that they don’t really know a lot about, especially special
education. So the quality of the education is going to be reduced.”
Mann says that the current district pay structure dictates that teachers, after
a certain point, will tend to cling to their positions. “I was surprised
that the senior teachers just largely rolled over, didn’t try to fight
this realignment thing,” he said. “They’re afraid to do that—they
don’t want to lose their jobs.”
Outside of union wrangling, AT says that the district has long had an unfortunately
shortsighted approach to budgetary problems. “My concern as a teacher
is that [MPS] has a bit of a problem of taking the flavor of the moment,”
he said. “Minneapolis handles the problem only when it comes; they don’t
do a very good job of planning ahead and I don’t know why that is. It
seems like the district’s large and it doesn’t move very quickly
and so you’d like in that situation to be looking ahead and working the
problem before it happens and Minneapolis for one reason or another absolutely
refuses to do that. They don’t believe it’s really going to be a
problem until it’s on their heels—then they get themselves into
panic mode. That’s a culture it seems to me.”
type of shortsighted and potentially administration-heavy decision-making may
have been contributing to the growing frustration of many to the district’s
lack of—or sluggish—responsiveness. Nathan relates a story about
South Minneapolis’ Sanford school, whose principal had become so concerned
about the plight of her Somali students that she went to Africa to educate herself.
After hiring several Somali teachers, steady improvement in the school had been
shown and around 50 Somali families were sending their kids from North Minneapolis
across town to Sanford.
“The district was paying about $10,000 for a bus to bring them,”
recalled Nathan. “Last year, in what the district called an economy move,
they cut the bus ... and those parents left. Now, doesn’t that strike
you as false economy—to cut a bus for $10,000 that ends up with the district
losing between $250,000 and $300,000?”
Sanford’s point goes beyond economics. The most dramatic aspect of the
Sanford story is the inability on the part of the district to recognize and
reward the personal attention of teachers and parents.
It’s important to remember that the regional charter schools that continue
to sprout up and drain away students are significantly less funded than are
the district schools - budget crunches or no. Charters pay for their rent, pay
their teachers less, and aren’t able to offer the fancy media and lab
space, nor the extensive sports and extracurricular programs of the district
schools. Charters are, simply, offering a more direct connection for parents
to the machinations of their kids’ education.
In one of the first-ever in-depth studies of the impact that charter schools
have had on the public school system in Minnesota, University of Minnesota political
science professor Scott Abernathy last winter concluded, “Policy makers
would be wise to consider the possibility of supplementing charter school reforms
with efforts to reward and support traditional public school principals who
take the same steps toward a parent-friendly school as do those principals who
have been compelled by the force of the marketplace.”
As several people interviewed for this story pointed out, many district parents
love their schools and their teachers. But unless the board and new superintendent
can harness that commitment and turn things around, Schapiro said last week,
“right now we’re moving more in the direction of Mississippi than
in the direction of excellence.” ||