Minneapolis Public Schools, the state’s third-largest public school district, is in the midst of re-evaluating its strategies for driving up academic achievement, boosting enrollment, and creating more equitable access to programming.
The drafting process for the plan, “Comprehensive District Design 2019-2022,” began over a year and a half ago, when district leaders hired an outside consultant to assess everything from enrollment trends to facility utilization.
From there, district leaders designed two new district models, giving the goals some roadmaps — ones that alter attendance areas and school pathways. A third model, which most closely resembles the current district layout, has been included in the mix, but labeled financially unsustainable.
Parents, teachers and community members had just over a month to scrutinize the proposed district maps and give feedback at community input sessions held this spring.
The board was scheduled to cast a final vote on the plan in late August. But, in the wake of a parent protest that disrupted a board meeting in May — where parents demanded more time to digest the proposals and contribute feedback — district leaders have decided to extend community engagement meetings through the fall, with the board now slated to take a final vote in early December.
District leaders still need to iron out strategies for meeting the goals outlined in the new strategic plan, while further assessing how each design stacks up in terms of transportation savings and integration impact. They’ll also need to find a way to sort through all of the varying demands that continue to emerge — including those by parents concerned about preserving the schools their children attend, and by community members concerned about further segregating schools.
What, exactly, does the plan entail?
Within the last year, the district erased its $33 million deficit and passed a balanced budget. However, one of the contributing factors to that crippling financial deficit — falling enrollment — hasn’t been resolved. According to staff reports to the board, only about half of school-aged residents in north Minneapolis attend Minneapolis Public Schools. And just over a third of school-aged residents in northeast Minneapolis attend schools in the district.
Many of those who choose to leave the district attend neighboring districts in Robbinsdale, St. Anthony, Fridley and Columbia Heights through open enrollment, or attend charter schools in the area.
Since a bulk of state and federal dollars follow students to the districts or charter schools they attend, boosting enrollment is a clear way to improve the district’s financial health.
With the intent to recruit students back to the district — and to retain families currently enrolled — the proposed strategic plan lays out a number of strategies to create a more inclusive, predictable experience for families. The list includes things like staffing each school with counselors, conducting customer service and cultural humility training for district staff and educators, and expanding upon culturally relevant programming.
Another prong of the district’s new strategic plan focuses on boosting academic achievement. The district has struggled to close a longstanding achievement gap between its students of color and their white peers.
Strategies to improve academic outcomes include doubling down on core priorities championed by Superintendent Ed Graff, like early literacy, multitiered systems of support and social and emotional learning. The plan also includes things like implementing restorative practices systemwide, expanding ethnic studies courses at high schools, and launching a handful of pilot programs to aid students facing the greatest academic disparities.
The third pillar of the plan calls attention to the need to create more equitable access to programming. This is where the district is rethinking things like school pathways, attendance boundaries, its placement of magnet schools and the distribution of extracurricular offerings — within the constraints of keeping transportation routes short and costs down.
This will likely entail a shift from the current three-zone model to either a two-region model (with a north-south divide) or a four-zone model that breaks the district into quadrants.
Why the surge in community interest?
The parent-led protests last month put the district’s strategic plan back in the media spotlight. However, it didn’t take much time or debate for the district to respond. At the next board meeting, Graff rolled out an extended timeline, adding another six months time to gather community feedback.
Public demands to slow things down, once equipped with two new district maps, may not have come as a surprise to the district. It’s hard for parents to react to a vision that doesn’t spell out how their children, along with the schools they attend, will be impacted. At the community listening sessions held this past spring, attendees often raised questions about grandfathering students into existing school pathways or attendance zones.
Some of these parents’ concerns have to do with how new attendance boundaries will potentially impact the racial and linguistic makeup of particular schools.
For instance, a number of people have raised concerns about a proposed pathway change for students who attend Green Central. Instead of feeding into Justice Page Middle School and then Washburn High School — and diversifying the student body at these predominantly white schools — these elementary students would feed into Anderson United Community School, a school that’s only 4 percent white.
These types of concerns tie into a third groundswell of public interest that’s emerged in the past month or so: concerns that the new district designs will further segregate some schools. A former board member, Pam Costain, voiced this concern at the end of a community input meeting last month.
“I’m really concerned. I do not see the commitment to integration that I would want to see in a comprehensive plan,” she said.
The integration piece is something district leaders had discussed last fall, but sidelined as they moved forward with the strategic planning process. They resumed this conversation last week at a board meeting dedicated to the topic of integration, where they discussed their values around it and explored if and how it should fit into the extended district design process.
At the conclusion of that meeting, Board Chair Nelson Inz invited further community input and underscored a key takeaway from the discussion: Many board members are “interested in bringing about changes that will cause more integration.”