While teachers and administrators recharge over winter break — and parents reacquaint themselves with having their kids home during the week — there are plenty of education happenings to reflect on from this past year, a year with so much news that many events seem to have occurred long ago.
The St. Paul school board welcomed a newcomer, Marny Xiong, to its ranks this fall (along with two incumbents) and hired Joe Gothard to serve as the district’s new superintendent. Meanwhile, a new Minneapolis board began taking shape — with a union-backed slate of three newcomers and one incumbent narrowly ousting two reform-oriented incumbents.
With both districts facing multimillion-dollar budget deficits in the year ahead, their leadership styles and commitment to equity will be put to the test. Likewise, as the state transitions from a budget surplus to a projected deficit, a number of lawmakers, advocates and educators will likely be vying over fewer dollars at the capitol to fund various education initiatives
In the face of grim budget forecasts, the 2017 education news archive is rich with stories of reform and narrow escapes. Here’s a look at five that stand out — for being bold, unexpected and perhaps even underestimated.
1. Schools take a stand against deportation efforts
As President Donald Trump began placing more and more restrictions on immigrants and directing Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) employees to amp up their efforts to identify undocumented immigrants, some Minnesota schools reacted quickly with new measures aimed at keeping their undocumented students safe.
A number of Minnesota districts adopted safe haven resolutions, sending a clear signal to their families that they intend to provide all students with an equitable education, no matter their legal status. Some took matters even further, developing and implementing actual protocol to help ensure students and staff were prepared to withstand a potential ICE raid — at school, at the bus stop, or anywhere in between. Let that sink in for a moment — educators serving some of the most vulnerable children found themselves in a position where they were offering to serve as students’ guardians, in the event that they’d go home to an empty house because their parents had been deported while they were at school. Even the less extreme measures — handouts reminding families of their rights and reviewing rights of staff to protect student records — make tornado drills seem simple.
2. Ethnic studies initiatives expand
Schools are continuing to add ethnic studies courses to their list of offerings. That means Latino students who may never have connected with a traditional history class now have access to Latino historical figures that they can relate to and draw inspiration from; and African-merican students — perhaps for the first time in their school experience — are being empowered to look at their ancestors as African kings and queens, rather than simply slaves. In the Minneapolis Public Schools district, ethnic studies courses for secondary students are on track to expand to cover new ethnic groups. In the St. Paul district, pieces of these courses are even making their way into lessons for elementary students. Beyond the Twin Cities, educators across the state are engaging in ethnic studies trainings — that are supported by a larger coalition of educators, including professors at the University of Minnesota — with the goal of integrating new historical figures and perspectives into their lesson plans. Heading into 2018, expect this trend to continue gaining momentum.
3. At long last … a revamped teacher licensure system
In the spring of 2016, a report from the legislative auditor’s office declared the state’s teacher licensure system “broken.” The audit laid out a laundry list of issues that were leaving applicants stuck in limbo and likely exacerbating teacher shortages — both in terms of key content areas and in terms of teacher diversity.
Those issues included a troublesome disconnect between the two entities tasked with issuing licenses (the Minnesota Department of Education and the state Board of Teaching), a lack of transparency with applicants denied a license, and statues that had become riddled with “undefined and unclear” terms over the years. In response, state lawmakers decided to move forward with a fairly radical overhaul. In terms of governance, they created a new state entity (with an even longer acronym) — the Professional Educator Licensing and Standards Board (PELSP) — to license teachers, approve teacher preparation programs and more. This 11-member board has been getting up to speed for the past few months and will officially take over on Jan. 1. The new teacher licensure system — a set of criteria laid out in four separate tiers — won’t go into effect until July 1. But, if all goes as promised, it should be a much more streamlined, easy-to-access process, with a new online platform to boot.
4. Protests affect hiring/firing decisions in Minneapolis
In April, protesters set the tone at a regularly scheduled Minneapolis Public Schools board meeting, packing into the boardroom and spilling out into the hallways. They were there, in part, to raise concerns over claims that some students had been denied a hot lunch for misbehaving. But the thing that caught district leadership most off guard were their demands that the board reinstate seven district employees who’d said they were wrongfully pushed out by school administrators after advocating for students. Without any further investigation into personnel matters, the board went ahead and sided with those pleading their case. As expected, at a special board meeting the following week, the board had to answer to nearly 100 principals and assistant principals who came to express their frustration and disappointment. Needless to say, it doesn’t seem likely that any staffing decisions will play out this way again anytime soon.
5. Perpich Center survives critical audit
It’s been a tumultuous year for the Perpich Center for Arts Education, the state agency tasked with running two arts-focused schools, in addition to providing arts education resources for schools statewide. In January, the agency received a highly critical audit, from the state Office of the Legislative Auditor, that brought its very existence into question. The audit raised concerns over the agency’s governance and financial management, along with declining enrollment and poor test scores at the two schools the state agency oversaw at the time: the Perpich Arts High School, located in Golden Valley, and Crosswinds Arts and Science School, located in Woodbury. But with multiple changes in leadership — from board members to school administrators — already taking place and a solid base of loyal lawmakers, educators, and families who fought to keep the center alive, a pared-down version of the agency survived. While the fate of Crosswinds remains up in the air, the Perpich center and high school in Golden Valley are likely appreciating a reprieve from making the news.