Last week, in the middle chapter of an effort to secure seats in new, let’s-hope-these-compromises-are-OK schools, I drove to 24th Street and Girard Avenue North, where Minneapolis Public Schools’ Student Placement Center is located. It was a surreal experience, and it reminded me of the movie “Waiting for Superman.”
Student placement is located in the building that once housed North Star Elementary, a school that was for some time hailed as one of MPS’ shining beacons of achievement. Since fully half the kids in the surrounding neighborhoods have decamped in the last decade for charters, nearby suburbs or parochial schools, it’s been repurposed. A charter occupies the lower level and a maze of those institutional fabric-covered cubbyholes occupies the upper floor.
To get there from anywhere else in Minneapolis, you drive along pretty much exactly the path taken by the tornado that tore through the city last spring. There are trucks and workers everywhere, but the boulevards are still dominated by the story-high root systems of toppled trees and houses swathed in plastic tarps.
North Star itself looks more or less deserted, its parking lot ringed by no-parking signs and weeds sprouting through cracks in the walks. Inside, families are greeted politely in a number of languages, handed clipboards and pens and asked to wait at a collection of tables while their school-placement requests are considered.
By contrast, consider Minnetonka, which advertises for open-enrollment students — and their state tuition dollars — in playbills at the Guthrie, Children’s Theatre and such.
Hoping for an advantage
While I waited my turn, I realized I was surrounded by parents hoping, a la “Superman,” to turn their visit into an advantage, however slim, for their kids. Each had a particular school in mind; each was one of the city’s more popular, better-achieving programs.
It’s the 11th hour for all of us. Most people requested a school last winter and were notified in April of their placement. Some of the families I wait with are new to Minneapolis. Others have been compelled at the last minute to seek a new school for a particular reason. A few weren’t aware they needed to start planning nine months ahead.
Every family with a teenager — there were two separate African-American mothers with teenage sons — wanted a spot in the city’s hugely oversubscribed Southwest High School. To my right, an African-American woman was coaching a teenage boy on presenting himself. There were far more families than illegally parked cars, so a number must have traversed the moonscape that once was a collection of proud neighborhoods on the bus.
Each, in my estimation — both as a schools reporter and as a mother who’d placed repeated phone calls in an attempt to win the same advantage — had about as much chance of success at this point in the year as if they’d tried to undo the tornado damage. And not one of them really needed a discourse on education policy.
Brickbats and laurels
Last fall, the feature-length documentary “Waiting for Superman” opened here to equal parts brickbats and laurels. In case you missed the uproar, filmmaker Davis Guggenheim, of “An Inconvenient Truth” fame, followed five kids as their families attempted to win them seats in decent schools.
All but one were poor minorities, each seemed heart-stoppingly articulate at an impossibly young age about what was at stake, and each had parents or grandparents willing to leap tall buildings to try to win them an advantage. All but one had given up on inner-city schools that would funnel them to “dropout factory” high schools, and were vying for spots in odds-beating charters.
The din that accompanied its opening was as loud and as orthodox here as anywhere. Upset at what they felt was a unions vs. innovators slant, teachers protested. Comment threads, including the ones appended to this blog, were ablaze with accusations that the film’s partisans were pro-charter.
Thrilled by the sense of urgency, reformers held town-hall meetings and open dialogues. Regular citizens without teaching licenses or public-school pupils of their own showed up and pledged to get involved.
Focus on the kids
I liked the movie partly for what I suspect is one of the reasons critics hated it: its relentless focus on the ground-level details of the lives and opportunities — or lack thereof — afforded its five wide-eyed stars. The adults on- and off-screen may choose to stay partitioned into ideological camps, but illustrated by their circumstances, the stakes are perilously high and the odds long.
This was intentional, Guggenheim has told interviewers. Every time he felt he was being sucked into the endless, and very political, debates about every facet of education reform, he reminded himself his job was simply to tell the stories of what happened to those five kids.
The film’s devastating conclusion depicts numbered balls tumbling from wire cages as the kids and their parents watch. The odds-beating schools in the movie are all filled by lottery, and most of the kids in the auditoriums where the lucky were chosen ended up losing. Anyone who argues that the achievement gap is the sole result of disinterested families should be sentenced to watch the sequence over and over, a la “A Clockwork Orange.”
To judge by the school-choice information on MPS’ homepage, my kids should have had a number of very desirable alternatives for the upcoming year. But the district made some mistakes in the strategic realignment two years ago and somehow didn’t account for the recent census.
To save money on busing and to deal with the depopulation of the north side, schools were closed, programs consolidated and attendance maps redrawn. The plan was noble: save a little scratch to spend on the basics, like teachers and class sizes, in the hope of making a dent in that nagging achievement gap.
Very different experiences
The upshot on the north side has been hard-won stability in schools that continue to struggle with moribund test scores. In the south and southwest, schools are mostly very good but painfully overcrowded; MPS is holding community meetings to figure out how to cope. The net result is that MPS families throughout the city experience the placement lottery very differently.
After weeks of not-so-helpful phone calls to student placement, it became clear that, rhetoric about school choice notwithstanding, most of my “choices” were full and just two schools could take my kids. I like to think of them as “Plan B” and “Oh God No.”
I filled out my forms and settled back to eavesdrop. After a while, a man appeared out of the maze of cubicles, smoothing a plain white envelope which he handed to me as if it contained a Harvard admissions letter and not a copy of MPS’ academic-year calendar.
“Your students have been placed,” was all he said as he turned away. No welcome to the district, no what happens next.
Plan B is OK, but …
I already knew that Plan B would be forced to take us. And I knew that because we live in a quadrant of the city where Plan B is pretty good, no hand-wringing is necessary. Our new schools have critical masses of affluent families who donate money, volunteer in classrooms and advocate on all levels.
Did we win the lottery? My kids will be fine, but I don’t think we, as members of a larger community that needs all of its kids to flourish, did.
The difference between us and the other families waiting in the tweedy blue reception area was pretty circumstantial — a matter of geographic, economic and racial privilege. It certainly wasn’t because those other parents loved their children any less or had lesser dreams for them.