Last night, eight candidates for Minneapolis School Board gathered in the Phillips neighborhood for an unusual discussion about race and equity in the city’s schools: Instead of addressing the audience as a whole, candidates were asked to move from one small group to another, speed-dating style.
At the end, participants were asked to rate candidates’ understanding of the issues confronting the district, which has had little success closing one of the biggest racial achievement gaps in the nation. They gave their evaluations to the organizers, advocates from several social justice groups who have joined forces as the Education Equity Organizing Collaborative.
The discussion was particularly relevant, given the way that race factors into this year’s school board election. Minneapolis has a long history of electing diverse board members, but for the first in more than 45 years, this election could leave the board with no African-Americans and no representative from the city’s largely black north side.
School board members traditionally have been elected citywide. Currently, Minneapolis Public Schools is in the process of both adding an eighth seat and moving to a system of electing some board members from geographic districts.
Southside candidates Hussein Samatar and Alberto Monserrate are running unopposed. Not only will Samatar be the board’s first Somali-American, he may be the first from his group elected to any office in the country.
The board does not currently have Latino representation; Monserrate is from Puerto Rico.
Four candidates are vying for two open at-large seats. Richard Mammen and Rebecca Gagnon were the top vote-getters in the August primary; both are white. They face African-Americans Chanda Smith Baker and incumbent Theatrice T. Williams.
One question put to the candidates is whether they were concerned that last year’s redrawing of school attendance boundaries, a move designed to cut back on busing, would increase segregation.
“My first belief about education is that every community school should be as strong as possible,” said Monserrate, CEO of the Latino Communications Network, which owns La Prensa and several other media outlets. “I don’t think people should have to leave their neighborhoods to get a good education.”
“Busing was expensive and environmentally disastrous,” said Southwest Minneapolis parent Rebecca Gagnon. Because schools serve segregated neighborhoods, desegregation advocates should lobby city council members to do things like create low-income housing in wealthier parts of the city, she said.
Endrizzi, an MPS contract teacher who was laid off last year, suggested the district bring kids of different races together in extracurricular activities.
Incumbent Williams and African Development Center founder Samatar both took exception to the way in which the achievement gap is often discussed in education circles. Closing the achievement gap is often described as the process of bringing children of color up to the level of academic success their white peers have had. Minneapolis would be better served by focusing on preparing every student for success in later life, both said.
“Children of color are tested, it’s reported out that they failed the test, and then they are told that they did not get as much as their white brothers and sisters,” said Williams. “I’m more concerned about how well we are preparing them to go to the next level.”
Conditions are particularly inequitable for the district’s English-language learners, Samatar said. The district spends just $10 million of its $650 million annual budget on ELL services, he said. “The current board is aware of that but has never addressed it.”
Schools often blame the achievement gap on families, while families often blame teachers, Smith Baker said. “We need to acknowledge the fact that there are some racial inequities that have happened in the district, that there are some institutional and systemic inequities,” she said.
Discipline policies and minority suspension rates are particular concerns for Smith Baker.
Mammen enthusiastically endorsed forum organizers’ efforts to persuade the district to adopt a rule that would require the board and administration to conduct an equity audit before making new policy. “Requiring an equity assessment to be made before every decision is a powerful tool,” he said.
Minneapolis also needs to address institutional barriers to recruiting and retaining more minority teachers, Mammen said: “That will require some very difficult conversations with the union.”
Arneson agreed that regular equity assessments would be a good idea. The current board conducted a racial equity study before redrawing school attendance boundaries, she said. “That was a courageous action.”
Finally, Monserrate expressed concern with the lack of training for district teachers in strategies that work in urban schools.
“We need to make sure our teachers are trained in the right way,” said Monserrate. “I ask teachers who’ve been successful with kids of color and they all say the thing that’s most helpful is to be mentored by teachers who’ve done it.”