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Let’s have a real conversation about what Minnesota children of color need

As a parent and school leader, I worry about the implications of Cruz-Guzman v. State of Minnesota as the controversial case now heads to trial.

Charvez Russell
Charvez Russell

If Minnesota children are not receiving the education our Minnesota Constitution guarantees them, where can their families turn? In late July, the Minnesota Supreme Court gave us an answer: the courts. As a parent and school leader who knows our education system’s injustices all too well, I believe this is an important, positive step forward.

But, as a parent and school leader, I worry about the implications of Cruz-Guzman v. State of Minnesota as the controversial case now heads to trial. This case has raised important questions about education adequacy, while also glossing over many others and pointing to the wrong solutions. As the lawsuit advances, we must stay laser-focused on what matters most: improving opportunities for all children, and especially children of color who have been denied an adequate education for decades.

The risk of going backward

If we don’t, and instead follow the logic of the Cruz-Guzman attorneys, we could actually take several steps backward. By seeking to narrowly evaluate a school’s “adequacy” based on its racial makeup, this case risks undermining schools that serve children of color well — and the families actively seeking them out and choosing to send their children there.

While I value integration, I don’t believe that achieving an arbitrary racial balance automatically makes a school “adequate.” Real integration means building schools that welcome and effectively serve students from all backgrounds, and dismantling policies that consign families to options that do not meet their needs.

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A quick look at Minnesota’s achievement gaps tells us that we are not there yet. Even in schools that appear integrated on paper, students of color too often do not get what they need. They are less likely to be academically proficient, and more likely to be identified for special education and school removals. And even when the student population is diverse, the same cannot usually be said for the educators at the front the classroom.

We built Friendship Academy to help address this and meet the educational needs of families of color. We are committed to providing academic rigor and cultural affirmation for our scholars. That focus, and our students’ outcomes, are exactly why so many families choose our school.

The academic achievement and well-being of historically underserved children is our bottom line. Not only are we proud of what we do; we are eager to share what we know about supporting students of color to help others schools do the same.

Excellence, not mere ‘adequacy’

At Friendship Academy, I don’t see mere “adequacy.” I see excellence. Our students are held to high expectations — and meet them. In 2017, 69 percent of our black students met or exceeded expectations on the math MCA, compared to 20 percent of their peers in Minneapolis Public Schools.

When I look into our classrooms, I don’t see “segregation,” forced exclusion, and separation. I see empowerment, energy, and enthusiasm. I see families of color actively choosing an environment where their children learn about, and learn to be proud of, their history, and where they have educators who reflect and understand who they are.

I see excellence and power every single day.

But, the Cruz-Guzman lawsuit risks labeling my school as “segregated” and “inadequate.” It risks looking at our school enrollment — which is 98 children of color — and deciding, without considering critical questions of student achievement and well-being and family choice, that we are incapable of teaching our students.

Let’s not let the lawsuit do that. Instead, let’s use this case to recommit to what ought to be our bottom line: ensuring all children — especially historically underserved children — have access to an excellent education.

Our students are not the problem

We have real, systemic issues to tackle. But we can never give in to the idea that schools are failing because of the students they serve. Our students are not the problem. We must support their needs, and embrace their strengths.

If we really care about children of color, we should protect and learn from schools where they’re thriving. We should seek to understand why families are choosing those schools.

We should focus on improving schools that aren’t providing these students with the education they deserve. What we should not do is force choices on children and families, or take away options serving them well.

Charvez Russell, Ph.D., is the executive director of Friendship Academy of the Arts, located in Minneapolis, which has intervened in the Cruz-Guzman lawsuit.


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