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Awaiting MPS placement feels a bit like 'Waiting for Superman'

While I waited my turn, I realized I was surrounded by parents hoping, a la “Waiting for Superman,” to turn their visit into an advantage, however slim, for their kids.
waitingforsuperman.com
While I waited my turn, I realized I was surrounded by parents hoping, a la “Waiting for Superman,” to turn their visit into an advantage, however slim, for their kids.

Last week, in the middle chapter of an effort to secure seats in new, let’s-hope-these-compromises-are-OK schools, I drove to 24th Street and Girard Avenue North, where Minneapolis Public Schools' Student Placement Center is located. It was a surreal experience, and it reminded me of the movie “Waiting for Superman.”

Student placement is located in the building that once housed North Star Elementary, a school that was for some time hailed as one of MPS’ shining beacons of achievement. Since fully half the kids in the surrounding neighborhoods have decamped in the last decade for charters, nearby suburbs or parochial schools, it’s been repurposed. A charter occupies the lower level and a maze of those institutional fabric-covered cubbyholes occupies the upper floor.

To get there from anywhere else in Minneapolis, you drive along pretty much exactly the path taken by the tornado that tore through the city last spring. There are trucks and workers everywhere, but the boulevards are still dominated by the story-high root systems of toppled trees and houses swathed in plastic tarps. 

North Star itself looks more or less deserted, its parking lot ringed by no-parking signs and weeds sprouting through cracks in the walks. Inside, families are greeted politely in a number of languages, handed clipboards and pens and asked to wait at a collection of tables while their school-placement requests are considered.

By contrast, consider Minnetonka, which advertises for open-enrollment students — and their state tuition dollars — in playbills at the Guthrie, Children’s Theatre and such.

Hoping for an advantage
While I waited my turn, I realized I was surrounded by parents hoping, a la “Superman,” to turn their visit into an advantage, however slim, for their kids. Each had a particular school in mind; each was one of the city’s more popular, better-achieving programs.

It’s the 11th hour for all of us. Most people requested a school last winter and were notified in April of their placement. Some of the families I wait with are new to Minneapolis. Others have been compelled at the last minute to seek a new school for a particular reason. A few weren’t aware they needed to start planning nine months ahead.

Every family with a teenager — there were two separate African-American mothers with teenage sons — wanted a spot in the city’s hugely oversubscribed Southwest High School. To my right, an African-American woman was coaching a teenage boy on presenting himself. There were far more families than illegally parked cars, so a number must have traversed the moonscape that once was a collection of proud neighborhoods on the bus.

Each, in my estimation — both as a schools reporter and as a mother who’d placed repeated phone calls in an attempt to win the same advantage — had about as much chance of success at this point in the year as if they’d tried to undo the tornado damage. And not one of them really needed a discourse on education policy.

Brickbats and laurels
Last fall, the feature-length documentary “Waiting for Superman” opened here to equal parts brickbats and laurels. In case you missed the uproar, filmmaker Davis Guggenheim, of “An Inconvenient Truth” fame, followed five kids as their families attempted to win them seats in decent schools.

All but one were poor minorities, each seemed heart-stoppingly articulate at an impossibly young age about what was at stake, and each had parents or grandparents willing to leap tall buildings to try to win them an advantage. All but one had given up on inner-city schools that would funnel them to “dropout factory” high schools, and were vying for spots in odds-beating charters.

The din that accompanied its opening was as loud and as orthodox here as anywhere. Upset at what they felt was a unions vs. innovators slant, teachers protested. Comment threads, including the ones appended to this blog, were ablaze with accusations that the film’s partisans were pro-charter.

Thrilled by the sense of urgency, reformers held town-hall meetings and open dialogues. Regular citizens without teaching licenses or public-school pupils of their own showed up and pledged to get involved.

Focus on the kids
I liked the movie partly for what I suspect is one of the reasons critics hated it: its relentless focus on the ground-level details of the lives and opportunities — or lack thereof — afforded its five wide-eyed stars. The adults on- and off-screen may choose to stay partitioned into ideological camps, but illustrated by their circumstances, the stakes are perilously high and the odds long.

This was intentional, Guggenheim has told interviewers. Every time he felt he was being sucked into the endless, and very political, debates about every facet of education reform, he reminded himself his job was simply to tell the stories of what happened to those five kids. 

The film’s devastating conclusion depicts numbered balls tumbling from wire cages as the kids and their parents watch. The odds-beating schools in the movie are all filled by lottery, and most of the kids in the auditoriums where the lucky were chosen ended up losing. Anyone who argues that the achievement gap is the sole result of disinterested families should be sentenced to watch the sequence over and over, a la "A Clockwork Orange."

To judge by the school-choice information on MPS’ homepage, my kids should have had a number of very desirable alternatives for the upcoming year. But the district made some mistakes in the strategic realignment two years ago and somehow didn’t account for the recent census.

To save money on busing and to deal with the depopulation of the north side, schools were closed, programs consolidated and attendance maps redrawn. The plan was noble: save a little scratch to spend on the basics, like teachers and class sizes, in the hope of making a dent in that nagging achievement gap. 

Very different experiences
The upshot on the north side has been hard-won stability in schools that continue to struggle with moribund test scores. In the south and southwest, schools are mostly very good but painfully overcrowded; MPS is holding community meetings to figure out how to cope. The net result is that MPS families throughout the city experience the placement lottery very differently.

After weeks of not-so-helpful phone calls to student placement, it became clear that, rhetoric about school choice notwithstanding, most of my “choices” were full and just two schools could take my kids. I like to think of them as “Plan B” and “Oh God No.”

I filled out my forms and settled back to eavesdrop. After a while, a man appeared out of the maze of cubicles, smoothing a plain white envelope which he handed to me as if it contained a Harvard admissions letter and not a copy of MPS’ academic-year calendar.

“Your students have been placed,” was all he said as he turned away. No welcome to the district, no what happens next.

Plan B is OK, but ...
I already knew that Plan B would be forced to take us. And I knew that because we live in a quadrant of the city where Plan B is pretty good, no hand-wringing is necessary. Our new schools have critical masses of affluent families who donate money, volunteer in classrooms and advocate on all levels.

Did we win the lottery? My kids will be fine, but I don’t think we, as members of a larger community that needs all of its kids to flourish, did.

The difference between us and the other families waiting in the tweedy blue reception area was pretty circumstantial — a matter of geographic, economic and racial privilege. It certainly wasn’t because those other parents loved their children any less or had lesser dreams for them.

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Comments (9)

Great article.

Sad situation.

Could we start fixing this in 2012 and stop just talking about it?

I thought “Waiting for Superman” was, while not quite completely loathsome, one-sided in the extreme. To quote from Rick Ayers’ review of the film:

“The film dismisses with a side comment the inconvenient truth that our schools are criminally underfunded. Money's not the answer, it glibly declares. Nor does it suggest that students would have better outcomes if their communities had jobs, health care, decent housing, and a living wage. Particularly dishonest is the fact that Guggenheim never mentions the tens of millions of dollars of private money that has poured into the Harlem Children's Zone, the model and superman we are relentlessly instructed to aspire to. Those funds create full family services and a state of the art school. In a sleight of hand, the film magically shifts focus, turning to "bad teaching" as the problem in the poor schools while ignoring these millions of dollars that make people clamor to get into the Promise Academy…”

Setting aside the many and serious flaws in “Waiting for Superman” however, it’s Beth’s final paragraph that grabs me, precisely because the aura of that “Superman” lottery comes through loud and clear. If MPS hopes to attract the support and loyalty of the vast majority of its taxpayers and patrons, the current setup ought not to be allowed to continue. All those parents waiting there deserve better, but to get what they deserve – and pay for – requires a level of commitment on the part of the community as a whole that seems – given Minnesota’s reputation elsewhere – strangely absent.

This is precisely the sort of incident that has me mentally raising my skepticism radar whenever someone starts talking about the “equal opportunity” available to children everywhere.

"I liked the movie partly for what I suspect is one of the reasons critics hated it: its relentless focus on the ground-level details of the lives and opportunities — or lack thereof — afforded its five wide-eyed stars"

The problem is that, just like about everything else in the movie, the portrayal of the "ground level details" of the lives of the children in the movie is mostly false. Part of the reason the movie wasn't considered for an academy award was because it didn't qualify as a documentary because it wasn't real.

Anyone capable of applying even a modicum of critical analysis (which Beth is more than capable of) to a film would be ripping this picce of crap apart. Beth should be hiding her embarassing review, not linking to it.

"The film’s devastating conclusion depicts numbered balls tumbling from wire cages as the kids and their parents watch. The odds-beating schools in the movie are all filled by lottery, and most of the kids in the auditoriums where the lucky were chosen ended up losing."

I guess the question I would ask is why an auditorium full of concerned parents do not self-organize to achieve the educational goals for their children. Isn't that how reform occurs? People with a common goal, purpose and objective band together to fulfill it.

The implied message is that these families are willing to support their children through homework help, volunteering at school, addressing discipline issues. That they will support the teachers and school system with timely response to their children's needs.

A propensity to self-organize is an American trait observed early on by Tocqueville. Is this large group of concerned parents seperated by geography? by language barriers? by misguided inhibitions?

How can they by assisted at realizing their passion to educate their children through organization?

Bill, why would we wait until 2012 to start fixing this, and what makes you think there are not people working their butts off right now to fix it?

This story reminds me of an old Sting song, where he wonders if Russians love their children too. It was easy to hate/blame/disrespect them as "others" until you realize that they are parents just like you.

The single solution crowds are always wrong when the situation is so complex. Super Man wanted to blame teachers and unions. So convenient. Some blame the "bad parents". Some blame poverty. Some blame race.

Anyone who comes in with a one horse agenda obviously doesn't understand the problem and obviously has a long pre-existing axe to grind.

Lastly, that lottery charade is disgusting. St. Paul and Minneapolis have lotteries for full schools, but we don't parade the kids around like pawns and amp up the emotional nature of it. That they would do that to these kids is truly disgusting. I can't even think of a good reason for it, other than to show how great they are because all these poor kids want in. It's like when Michelle Rhee begged a camera crew to come film her firing a principal. these people are seriously bent.

It is a sad state of affairs these days in Minnesota. For a state that has prided itself on choice, the number of quality choices for children living in poverty is abysmal. Even the most desired schools in MPS are nowhere close to the quality of the charters in "Waiting" in getting excellent academic results for ALL students, regardless of race or socio-economic status.

"Even the most desired schools in MPS are nowhere close to the quality of the charters in "Waiting" in getting excellent academic results for ALL students, regardless of race or socio-economic status."

Actually Matthew (#6) that isn't true at all, because the charters in that movie aren't getting excellent academic results for all students. The test results from the first year of Geofrey Canada's school were so miserable, that they kicked all the kids out and started over with a new set of kids. Even with that kind of cherry-picking (which public schools can't do) the results aren't anywhere near what is being claimed in the movie about by the public school "reformers" behind it.

Many of the successful charter schools in poor neighborhoods are successful because they attempt to overcome habits established in homes and earlier schools, habits of language, dress, respect, and discipline. They attempt to be an island of the best of middle class morality and ambition in the midst of a poor neighborhood that lacks both. It can be a blow to the parents' pride to see their children educated to become different from them. As such it is wise to limit charter schools to those who choose them. A parent who has to fight to get their child into a charter school is already determined to make their child different from his or her peers. Without that impetus, it can be difficult for a charter school to survive.

Allowing a charter school into a neighborhood and sending your kids to it requires parents to admit that the schools which educated them were deficient and are deficient. That can be a knock to the collective ego of the neighborhood. The neighborhood has to decide something is deeply wrong first. There are a lot of middle class towns in America that would benefit from charter schools, but very few who will accept this fact. It will be a while yet before American parents are ready to welcome true reform in their schools.

Richard, the problem with your argument and the idea that charter schools are the key to reform is that kids are more likely to get worse educations in charter schools as opposed to traditional public schools. The least productive years of a teachers career are the first years and charters are usually full of inexperienced teachers. That is the same reason kids with Teach for America teachers do so much worse than kids with traditional teachers.

If you want to have a meaningful discussion about school reform, you have to get past the political posturing and the garbage like Waiting for Superman and be willing to look at actual facts.