In the midst of a pandemic, the Minneapolis Public Schools board sits at a critical crossroads: to take a vote on adopting a new district-wide plan, or to postpone and potentially hit the reset button.
The planning process began back in December 2017, steadily growing into an entire collection of data-driven studies, community input and drafts, Superintendent Ed Graff reminded listeners during a virtual board meeting Tuesday evening. “What’s essentially emerged is a proposal to significantly redesign Minneapolis Public Schools in three areas: academics, equity and sustainability, with the goal of providing every student in MPS access to a well-rounded education.”
The meeting began with more than three hours of impassioned public comment, submitted via voicemail. The outpouring of both support and opposition began to intensify in January, once parents and educators had actual blueprints of the Comprehensive District Design (CDD) to review.
“We’ve completed our part of the plan development. And, working with leadership, there was an agreement for us to ensure better academic opportunities for all students. We have to continue to move this work forward,” Graff said, addressing community demands to delay a vote as many families are preoccupied with COVID-19.
For now, the board is slated to continue its discussion of the final proposal at its next virtual board meeting, on April 28, with a possible vote to follow at the May 12 meeting. That timeline could change, at the board’s discretion.
In advance, here’s a quick breakdown of the key components included in the final proposal.
Centralized magnets, new boundaries
The final draft upends the current magnet school structure, centralizing all magnet sites and shuffling a number of magnet programs. This overhaul is, in part, an effort to make access to these programs more equitable.
In the new plan, the district would reduce its magnet school count from 13 to 11. It would eliminate current open education, International Baccalaureate, and environmental magnet options. Instead, new offerings would be added: global studies and humanities; and STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts and math).
The K-8 structure currently offered at four magnet sites and five community schools would be reduced to two school sites: Jefferson and Sullivan. This change had drawn sharp criticism from immigrant families, and their larger school communities, who have voiced a strong preference for the K-8 configuration — having testified in favor of keeping elementary- and middle-school-aged siblings in the same school building and in favor of the sense of community and security at these schools.
At the high-school level, the new plan would also centralize all career and technical education (CTE) programs, offering engineering, computer science, robotics and digital communications at North High; business, law and public safety and agriculture at Edison; and auto, construction, machine tool, welding and health care at Roosevelt.
School boundaries will also be impacted. Notably, the new plan prioritizes community schools as a way to reduce transportation costs and improve integration levels, district-wide.
Based on enrollment projections, district leaders say the number of racially isolated schools (those with more than 80 percent of students belonging to one group) would be reduced from 20 to eight.
Enrollment, cost considerations
During its first year of implementation — during the 2021-22 school year— the new plan is estimated to cost about $11.5 million, Graff said Tuesday evening. Moving forward, the costs are estimated to be about $10.6 million.
“It’s important to note that approximately 75 percent of that cost will be used to increase the academic programming,” he said.
The affordability of this plan largely depends on the district’s ability to deliver on projected transportation savings of about $6.9 million. He also highlighted $4.6 million in integration aid that would be used to invest in this work.
According to five-year capital cost estimates, magnet school improvements will total nearly $6.5 million; the creation of three new CTE sites will total nearly $26 million.
In terms of enrollment, district leaders expect that all of these changes will lead to an initial decline — with a projected loss of 400 students in each of the first two years. Factoring that into current enrollment projections, district leaders forecast an anticipated student loss of about 1,200 students in the 2021-22 school year. But they think that those short-terms losses will eventually level off, then enrollment will actually increase.
The addition of about 1,000 seats at magnet programs, under the new plan, may help attract back families — many from north and northeast Minneapolis — who have already left the district, opting to open-enroll in neighboring districts or attend charter schools instead.
With regard to dual-language immersion schools, district officials claim the new plan includes enough seats — albeit at some different sites — for all students currently enrolled in these programs to continue this path of study.
Likewise, seats will be held for students in current community schools that are being transitioned into magnet schools, and for students in magnets that are being assigned a new focus area. Current high schoolers do not have to change schools for the duration of their high school career, even though new boundaries indicate otherwise for future high-schoolers.
Division among board members
Those in support of the plan view it as a long-overdue opportunity to redistribute resources and opportunities across the district in a way that’s more equitable. Director Jenny Arneson, representing schools in the northeast part of the district, has been a vocal supporter for these reasons, and more.
Her input at the last board meeting, where she and her colleagues had their first opportunity to publicly discuss the final district redesign proposal, centered on making sure the board maintains diligent oversight during implementation. “Systems change is harder than targeted change — like replicating schools we love, or placing leaders, or rearranging staff,” she said. “We avoid it because it comes with heavy emotions of fear and loss. And those feelings are real. So we want it to be worth the cost.”
On the other end of the spectrum, director Bob Walser, who represents families in District 4 — which includes downtown, the Isles neighborhoods and Bryn Mawr — spent his comment time echoing critiques of the credibility and integrity of the redesign process raised by a many concerned about preserving existing K-8 grade configurations and magnet programs, calling it an attempt to impose “a widely disliked plan on an unwilling public.”
He also took issue with the push to move forward amidst a pandemic — the latest talking point popular among critics of the plan. “To face disruptive change and the loss of supportive school communities at that time would be, to put it simply, cruel.”