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As desegregation case proceeds, here’s a look at what became of the metro’s earlier effort

This pilot program largely involved busing low-income students of color — who chose to participate in the program — from Minneapolis to eight suburban school districts.

Minnesota’s open enrollment policy allows public school students to apply to and attend public schools outside of their home districts. The Choice Is Yours program essentially built upon the open enrollment option, giving Minneapolis students two key advantages: priority placement in open seats, along with free transportation.
MinnPost file photo by Bill Kelley

Last month, the Minnesota Supreme Court decided that a high-profile school integration lawsuit — Cruz-Guzman v. State of Minnesota, which had been dismissed by the Minnesota Court of Appeals — could, in fact, get its day in Hennepin County District Court.

The lead attorney for the plaintiffs, Dan Shulman, says he’s hoping to get a trial date set within a year. He, along with the seven Minneapolis and St. Paul families and one Minneapolis-based nonprofit organization that he represents, accuse the state of enabling racial segregation in the Twin Cities’ seven-county metro area by supporting open enrollment and the creation of racially segregated charter schools.

That segregation is an issue, they claim, because the public schools are failing to adequately teach poor students and students of color. The solution they’ll be advocating, once the case goes to trial, is a metrowide desegregation plan.

When asked, Shulman says he’s withholding the details of the desegregation plan he’ll be advocating in court. But this isn’t the first desegregation plan he’s had a hand in creating. He was the lead counsel in a landmark Minnesota class action court case, Minneapolis Branch of the NAACP, et al. v. State of Minnesota, et al., which resulted in a smaller-scale desegregation effort called the Choice Is Yours program in 2000.

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This pilot desegregation program largely involved busing low-income students of color — who chose to participate in the program — from Minneapolis to eight suburban school districts: Robbinsdale, St. Louis Park, Wayzata, Edina, Hopkins, Richfield, St. Anthony and New Brighton (plus Eden Prairie, which voluntarily opted into the program).

“The ‘Choice is Yours’ program was a negotiated settlement agreement of a limited scope that gave the State an opportunity to move in the different direction of desegregating metro area schools,” wrote Shulman. “Unfortunately, in the years since the Choice is Yours program was instituted, the State has instead chosen to pursue policies and practices that have resulted in ongoing large scale segregation of metro area schools.”

On June 30, 2005, the legal settlement that prompted the creation of this program expired. But state and federal funding extended beyond that deadline, allowing participating districts to keep the program alive for a bit longer. Today, however, the program no longer officially exists.

Since it seems likely that key elements of this pilot desegregation plan — namely busing with a focus on achieving  a greater racial balance in schools — will resurface during the Cruz-Guzman trial, it’s worth revisiting.

“If we prevail at trial, as we expect to do, the State will have to bring forward a plan to desegregate metro area schools,” Shulman added. “We will ensure that any plan the State proposes to remedy its unconstitutionally segregated schools will be effective and provide all school children with an adequate, desegregated education.”

What became of the program?

Minnesota has a long history of supporting school choice. It’s the birthplace of charter schools — public schools that operate outside of the traditional public school district system. And the state’s open enrollment policy allows public school students to apply to and attend public schools outside of their home districts.

The Choice Is Yours program essentially built upon the open enrollment option, giving Minneapolis students two key advantages: priority placement in open seats, along with free transportation.

Beginning with the 2001-02 school year, participating districts agreed to set aside a minimum of 500 K-12 seats for Minneapolis students each year, for a four-year period. By 2008, that number had ballooned, with over 2,000 participants enrolled that year, alone.

Overall, Robbinsdale Area Schools enrolled the largest share of Choice Is Yours participants. According to Stephanie Crosby, who oversaw the Choice Is Yours program during its duration in the district, the first year they accepted 127 Minneapolis students through the program. But that number quickly grew to more than 500 participants each year.

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“Our number far exceeded what we were expected to bring in,” she said.

That’s partly because they already had about 1,000 Minneapolis students who were open-enrolled in their district, she explained. When the Choice Is Yours program was created, they simply identified those who qualified for free-and-reduced-price lunch — a criterion for participants — and got them signed up, so they no longer had to cover transportation costs on their own.

Added supports for Choice Is Yours students varied among districts. In the Robbinsdale district, Crosby said staff put a number of services in place to ensure that these students and their families “became fully engaged.” That included everything from a full week of orientation activities and extended transportation options so students could participate in after-school activities to holding off-site conferences at three community gathering locations in north Minneapolis and pairing students with cultural liaisons inside their school buildings.

Officially, the Choice Is Yours program no longer exists. But remnants of the program remain, as some districts have grandfathered in program supports for former Choice Is Yours students who are still working toward graduation.

For instance, in the Wayzata Public Schools district, Jill Johnson, the district’s director of teaching and learning, says her district has been at full capacity for the past seven years, meaning there are very few seats available to those who wish to open enroll into the district. But it continues to support former Choice Is Yours participants by providing things like transportation, orientation sessions and busing for parents to attend school events — at no cost to these families — so these kids from outside of the local community “would have a good transition.”

Looking at current enrollment data, she says the district still has 18 students who came in as part of the Choice Is Yours program: two elementary students, five middle-schoolers and a mix of high-schoolers.

When the Choice Is Yours program first began, Johnson was working as a principal at Richfield High School, in the Richfield Public Schools district, a participating district. In her experience, there was a lot of interest among Minneapolis families, and educators “worked really hard to make sure all felt they belonged.” Yet she’d often hear students question why they needed to go so far out of their way to get a quality education.

“I had kids share with me: ‘Why do I have to travel across town to go to a better school? Why isn’t my neighborhood school a good school?’ I heard that a lot,” she said.

Mixed outcomes

According to program evaluators, the outcomes of The Choice Is Yours program were mixed. As indicated in the 2006-07 outside evaluation of the program, the return rate for Choice Is Yours students in grades 3 through 7 sat at about 50 percent from one year to the next. For all grades, during the program’s first six years, that rate was a bit higher, with about two-thirds of the Choice Is Yours students returning the following year. However, when surveyed, almost all participating parents — 96 percent — said they’d recommend the program to others.

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In terms of academic outcomes, the findings were even less conclusive. Dave Heistad, executive director of research, evaluation and assessment for the Bloomington Public Schools district, helped assess student data during his time as the Minneapolis Public Schools’ director of research, evaluation and assessment. He says they evaluated the program over a three-year period and found that the “findings related to achievement were mixed.”

“One year the kids who went to suburban schools did better than the mass sample. Another year the kids who stayed in Minneapolis did better. The third year, there was no difference,” he said. “From an achievement point of view, there was not a clear effect.”

In the beginning, he says, evaluation work done on the Choice Is Yours program was largely retrospective — a factor that made it a bit more challenging to assess. Eventually, the evaluations became more forward-looking, building in both qualitative and quantitative components, he said.

If the Cruz-Guzman trial results in a mandated metrowide desegregation plan, he hopes the plan would “stipulate that research needs to be done from day one, instead of waiting until two, three years into the program.”

And the evaluation design should go a layer deeper as well, he adds.

“The evaluation design should look at the types of courses students are taking and the way integration takes place within the school so that you don’t have students from a Choice Is Yours type program only in lower-level skills programs,” he said. “You want to make sure that students not only feel accepted, but are also being challenged with rigorous coursework.”