Last spring the Minneapolis Public Schools board voted to push back its deadline for adopting a new districtwide strategic plan.
That move came on the heels of a protest at a board meeting in May, where parents demanded more time to digest two new roadmaps the district had just released. Both models altered attendance areas and school pathways. And neither explicitly addressed longstanding integration issues — a task district leadership said they had chosen to sideline as they initiated the strategic planning process.
What started out as a promise to slow things down, though, has evolved into more of a redesign overhaul.
For starters, after collecting more community feedback over the summer, district leaders revised the focus of the new plan to tackle issues of inequity and racism on a systemwide level, rather than on an individual school level. They are more closely scrutinizing existing policies — especially those that perpetuate segregation — and requesting more data analysis to inform the planning process moving forward.
District leaders are now aiming to finalize a plan in April. Beforehand, community members will have additional opportunities to weigh in after district staff present a revised blueprint to the board.
Disruptions are coming, Superintendent Ed Graff promised at a recent committee of the whole meeting. “Moving forward is about analysing the risks, the disruptions, the challenges we have — and really reaffirming what our beliefs are and how we want to reallocate our resources.”
Some tough decisions about school boundaries, programming and the like will be made even more difficult given the $19.6 million budget deficit the district is facing for the 2021-21 school year. According to staff projections, these shortfalls are projected to increase each year.
The financial setback comes on the heels of a temporary reprieve. The state’s third largest district closed a $33 million shortfall last spring, with the help of a voter-approved property tax increase. But declining enrollment, along with rising inflationary expenses that far outpace state and federal dollars, make it difficult for the district to maintain a balanced budget, say district leaders.
A marathon of studies
Fewer students means less funding, since the bulk of education funding is allocated on a per-pupil basis.
Earlier in the year, district staff had reported that 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.
Further enrollment analysis in August highlighted the fact that last year the district lost nearly 1,500 students who had been enrolled in district schools. More than 80 percent were students of color and indigenous students. Black students accounted for more than 50 percent of that loss to open enrollment in neighboring districts, charters and other school choice options.
Staff reported the top reasons families gave for leaving: discipline practices, unresolved family requests, transportation and moving.
In September, the board mulled over a staff report on integration, teacher distribution and a belief gap survey — the gap between what students believe they are capable of and what district educators believe they are capable of.
For example, in a survey question used to measure perceptions of self management, 87 percent of black students said they are prepared for school, while only 58 percent of teachers said they are prepared for school.
In contrast, 91 percent of teachers said white students are prepared for school — showing better alignment with the perceptions white students have of themselves.
In terms of teacher distribution, staff reported that schools with a greater percentage of students of color, students who qualify for free-and-reduced-price lunch and students not proficient in reading tend to have higher teacher turnover rates, more late hires, less experienced teachers and higher rates of placement teachers.
In October, the board reviewed a staff report on academic progress and showed that disparities in everything from academic achievement and attendance to discipline persist.
In November, staff presented the results of an Equity and Diversity Impact Assessment on the district’s student placement policies and practices. This assessment concluded that the current system fails to support integration efforts and to provide all families with access to meaningful school choice.
A data set on school requests for kindergarten, broken down by race, helps to illustrate the inequities that currently exist within the placement process. Only 63 percent of black families who don’t qualify for free-and-reduced-price lunch submitted a request, compared to 94 percent of white families that meet that criteria.
Adjusting school boundaries
Looking to boost integration based on race and income level, and look for potential transportation savings, the district also asked its transportation company, Edulog, to conduct a two-part boundary study.
Board members reviewed phase one of the study in November. It primarily focused on mapping out what it could look like if all students attended their community schools, with modified boundaries.
The changes would likely result in two fewer schools with a poverty level over 80 percent; and five fewer racially identifiable schools.
In phase two of the study, the company layered in magnet schools — suggesting how they might better serve as an integration tool if they were more centrally located in the city, and reduced the overall number from 12 to seven.
These changes would likely result in six fewer schools with a poverty level over 80 percent; and 10 fewer racially identifiable schools. Additionally, the number of schools with fewer than 350 students would be reduced from 14 to seven.
Notably, reconfiguring magnet schools in this way would reduce the number of magnets located in south Minneapolis — a segment of the district that serves a whiter, more affluent student population and that draws more students of color from north and northeast Minneapolis.
Speaking in support of the proposed centralized magnet model at the board meeting last Thursday, Board Member Jenny Arneson said students from north and northeast Minneapolis have long been told it’s reasonable for them to travel to south Minneapolis to access these sorts of programs.
“If we’re really committed to equity, then we need to hold ourselves to the same standards in every neighborhood. To me, that means if we want magnets to exist for the purpose of integration, we have to have a citywide system that’s centrally located,” she said. “We can’t have a zone system — which is what we have — or identical programs [that] tell north and northeast parents we’re allowed out in tolerable doses to certain programs, in certain neighborhoods.”