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An Eden Prairie schools update -- from three vantage points

Melissa Krull
Melissa Krull

The late Philip Graham, publisher of the Washington Post, famously remarked that newspapers provide “the first rough draft of history.”

In no instance I can think of right now is that more true than the case of coverage over the last couple of years of Eden Prairie Schools’ efforts to close their academic achievement gap.

If you read only local newspaper reports (mine included) and watch local broadcasts, you probably recall this as the pitched battle between a superintendent determined to restore racial balance to the growing suburbs’ schools, white parents angry that that quest for integration meant some of their children would be bused to schools outside of their affluent neighborhoods, and the school board caught in the middle.

Redrew attendance boundaries

The Cliffs Notes version of what turns out to be a terribly rough draft: In 2009, now-vanquished Superintendent Melissa Krull and a committee of educators and community members redrew Eden Prairie’s attendance boundaries to accomplish a number of goals. The only one that earned much ink was the effort to desegregate a school that had come to serve primarily low-income immigrants and its majority-white neighbors.

Bedlam ensued, in the form of a series of ugly, racially charged meetings and threats of a lawsuit. In late 2010, the board upheld the plan. A few months later, it bought out Krull’s contract. In the meantime, a number of families voted with their feet — moving their kids to Minnetonka schools, which rolled out the welcome mat — while others decided their new or newly reconfigured schools were just fine, thank you.

(The map, in case you are wondering, did not get restored to its segregated state after Krull’s departure. Board members’ re-election campaigns, however, were another story.)

Controversy in context

In recent months, several items of note have been published here and at the national level that put the controversy in context. The shift in attendance boundaries was part of a much larger, and ultimately much more interesting and productive, long-term effort to close the achievement gap.

Susan Eaton
Photo Mathew SchwartzSusan Eaton

If you care at all about issues of race and equity in schools, it behooves you to read the most interesting of the pieces, by Susan Eaton of the Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race and Justice at Harvard Law School. Eaton’s eminently readable piece traces the decade preceding busing-gate, during which Krull and her team drilled down on the many issues confronting the district’s schools and made enviable strides toward closing its achievement gap.

In contrast to the whites vs. immigrants frame with which most local coverage was cast, Eaton approaches her piece through the lens of a Somali-American family that was distraught to learn that their student would be bused away from her hyper-segregated but beloved school, which had received special, gap-closing attention.

Reading gap 'narrowed 16 percentage points'

A shorter read is Krull’s own piece on the strides made in the years before the blow-up, published last month in the Washington Post.

“It took several years to see the full impact of this work, but by 2012 some gaps were reduced by nearly 50 percent and students of color showed sizeable achievement gains,” Krull wrote. “For example, the gap between white students and black students in reading narrowed 16 percentage points from 2008, when the gap was 42 percentage points. All of this, while the performance of our white students continued to increase.”

Finally, earlier this year Star Tribune commentator and Center of the American Experiment Senior Fellow Katherine Kersten authored a report concluding that the Eden Prairie experience was “a race-based recipe for disaster.”

Same ground, but different take

Katherine Kersten
MinnPost file photo by Bill KelleyKatherine Kersten

Kersten was kind enough to send Your Humble Blogger a copy of her study — which I read every word of and then could not figure out what to do with. It recovers in great detail much of the same ground as Eaton’s piece, noting that gap-closing strategies were working in segregated schools.

But where Krull saw the rising test scores as a great first step that would not be sustained without equity, Kersten warns that the saga threatens to provoke an educational adequacy suit against the state with the ultimate aim of returning to the era of busing.

(Uncomfortable side note: If I had a dime for every footnote in Kersten’s study that refers to reporting done by me or my colleague Cynthia Boyd, I’d treat Kersten to a trip to Washington, D.C., where we could arrange for a healing ceremony on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.)

In case I’m being too subtle, for fear that I’m committing the journalistic equivalent of poking a stick into a nest of ants, the same facts bolster both cases. Which means we’re back more or less where we started as a society: Can separate ever be equal?

Read and debate amongst yourselves. Me, I’m back to that rough draft business.

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Comments (10)

In my personal experience

Busing is only controversial when it is used to achieve racial integration. I attended a neighborhood elementary school in SE Wisconsin. For the first seven years of my attendance, the school offered grades first through eighth. When I would have been in eighth grade there, the school district consolidated (I learned later) and a decision from on high was made that all eighth graders should go to school at one school. So we were bused about ten miles. The trip morning and evening for me was an hour each way. Nobody but us kids complained.

It strikes me as obvious that the only reason these parents are complaining about the busing is because it forces their children to be exposed to children of other racial and socio-economic backgrounds. Nobody complains when busing is used for other purposes, like school consolidation purposes and lower taxes. If it's not right for one then it's not right for the other. If neighborhood schools are so inherently good, and I'm not saying they aren't, then why aren't all schools built to serve neighborhoods? It's not right to measure success of busing solely by educational achievement. If separate but equal is inherently unequal, then integration is inherently good. The issue then should be: what harm does it do? Does busing really destroy neighborhoods as Sharon Sayles-Belton and others maintain? How can busing be blamed for generations old problems of brokenness in families and poverty?

Our family's personal Eden Prairie experience

34 years ago, our family moved to Eden Prairie. Our then fifth-grade daughter was bussed to
Forest Hills grade school, quite a distance from from our home near Eden Prairie Road and not in an area of Eden Prairie that we would likely ever even drive through. Prairie View grade school was much closer and would be the logical school for our daughter and for our neighborhood. My wife and I however never felt that anything was wrong with this arrangement, we just felt that the school district must have had a reason for establishing the attendance areas in that manner. I never heard any complaints from any of our neighbors either. For either school, the neighborhood kids rode the bus. (In never recall seeing anyone walking to school in Eden Prairie.)

When the recent controversy unfolded in the news, things had changed. Some people living in our former area of Eden Prairie were up in arms because their kids were being bussed, not to Prairie View, but to Forest Hills. Obviously Mr. Kingstad you are right - busing is only controversial when it is used to achieve racial integration.

Frequently-plowed ground

Ms. Kersten’s report contains some interesting assertions, unsupported by facts, as befits many of her contributions to the ongoing discussion. She and Mrs. Bachmann apparently trained at the same institutions.

I’d suggest that Ms. Kersten read Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka for a little factual background. It matters not whether a pattern of racial segregation is implemented and maintained with purpose or simply allowed to grow organically.

There’s a truckload of 20th century research, and probably more in the past dozen years of this century, to show that segregation by race has negative effects of all shapes and sizes, from creating and maintaining pockets of poverty, crime and the other problems that arise with those conditions to trapping children in underfunded and underperforming schools. Consciously segregated facilities are seldom equal, the fact of segregation is itself psychologically and emotionally problematic, and the combination makes “equality of opportunity” a cruel joke rather than public policy. THAT would be the basis for any lawsuits arguing that Minnesota has failed to provide a constitutionally-mandated equal education for all its children.

So I’d be inclined to argue just the opposite of Ms. Kersten in regard to such a lawsuit. Reducing racial segregation, as Ms. Krull’s policies attempted to do, while simultaneously pursuing changes in instruction and district policy that were apparently helping to close the dismal achievement gap between segments of the student populations at Eden Prairie schools, would, in my view, go far toward preventing such an “educational adequacy” lawsuit. Focusing exclusively on the “reforms” promoted by Ms. Kersten would go far toward micromanaging instruction using Ms. Kersten’s ideological perspective as motivation, while simultaneously failing to address the racial and socioeconomic issues affecting the achievement gap that provides the rationale for such an “educational adequacy” lawsuit in the first place.

And in the end, the Florida example Ms. Kersten so admires seems to me based largely on bribery of otherwise cash-starved school districts, followed by the implementation of the usual right wing formula for “reform” of education – get rid of those overpaid teachers and bring in people who’ll work for less, but have the correct ideology.

I would certainly NOT argue with the importance of high expectations and academic focus that exemplary school demonstrate all over the country, be they public, private, parochial, charter, or interplanetary. That focus and those expectations are the bedrock of successful schools, teachers, parents and families. High expectations and a strong academic focus are also not themselves political talking points of left or right, and have nothing to do with what Ms. Kersten otherwise advocates. They would seem to have been an integral part of the program Ms. Krull was attempting to implement in Eden Prairie, along with altering the pattern of racial segregation that appears to have developed.

It's instructive

that busing for the sole purpose of achieving some sort of racial desegregation only seems to be supported by white liberals, the vast majority of whom have no personal experience going to racially-mixed or segregated schools and probably never even met a black person until they were freshmen at the U. Something in their lily-white past has apparently convinced them that non-white people are so inferior that it's actually impossible for them to learn in a classroom that's made up of people like them.

The fact that there's still people walking around promoting this nonsense is outrageous.

Despite all the protestations that the policy is flat-out racist and that there's plenty of evidence to show that black kids in segregated classrooms can perform just as well as white kids in their segregated private schools, liberals believe that black kids can't learn unless they're sitting next to white kids. Outrageous.

This is reason number four why black parents should be voting republican.

"Plenty of evidence"

Care to share some of that with us?

Race riots

Ever had one at your junior high school, RB Holbrook? It's quite a culturally enriching experience.

Causes even progressives to move out of "diverse" neighborhoods.

Evidence is called for

" ...and that there's plenty of evidence to show that black kids in segregated classrooms can perform just as well as white kids..."

Yes, actually providing the evidence suggested would be greatly appreciated, considering the history of the debate. I'm sure you have plenty to spare.

Busing Teaches Something Good Too!

It teaches the kids patience so when they grow up they can sit in rush hour traffic on 35W every day like the rest of us.

All Politics is Local -- National Context Misses the Mark

As the parent of a child who experienced first-hand some of the under-reported yet no less controversial decisions of Melissa Krull, I can say with confidence that the busing issue was not the reason that she was ousted by the school board. Dr. Krull's downfall was her attempt to wrestle the district's crown jewel facility, Oak Point Intermediate School (which was, by the way, fully integrated grades 5 and 6), away from the regular public school kids so that her beloved Spanish Immersion school could have nicer facilities. The whole busing thing came after such gems as: mandatory looping for 5th and 6th graders (failed), her first attempt to change elementary schools to K-6 (failed), her power grab of the school board by getting them to adopt the so-called "Coherent Governance" model that gave her ultimate control of the district, her putting together a hand-picked Facilities Advisory Committee which was not allowed to explore any option that did not include putting the Spanish Immersion school at Oak Point, and her wholesale dismantling of the district's gifted and talented program. Frankly, many of us were trying to figure out how to make her go away as early as the Looping fiasco in 2007.

As for her accomplishment of closing the achievement gap? I think the best program she put in place were the special programs at Forest Hills School. Of course, those could not be replicated at the four other schools when we switched to K-6, so I believe they've gone away. There are two ways to solve the achievement gap: raise up the low achieving kids or dumb down the higher achieving kids. Time will tell which of those methods she chose to use...

I'm not claiming that the busing issue didn't tip the scales, but don't brand us "racist" just because Melissa Krull told you we were.

Additional Information on Spanish Immersion School in EP

Ms. Henry accurately and concisely represents many of the issues that have been going on in EP around the former superintendent, who keeps trying to add to her own credibility by calling people "racist," rather than by effectively leading change.

I wanted to add to Ms. Henry's comments by clarifying that the Spanish immersion program referenced, above, is the whitest school in the district, from my understanding. It is also quite wealthy, from my understanding. It is not, as many might think, a school where Hispanic children trying to learn while learning English get extra help. It is the only "cholce" school/program in the district, and it appears to be near and dear to Dr. Krull's heart.

There is quite a bit of diversity in EP, and that brings opportunities and challenges. A large part of the diversity consists of immigrants from Somalia, who were not served as well as possible by the schools and community during Dr. Krull's term. She consistently blocked efforts of community groups, Somali and nonSomali, to help in the schools--to help start solving problems. Furthermore, the aforementioned Spanish immersion school is not appropriate for the needs of ELL students from Africa. It isn't even appropriate for EP's Hispanic population, as it presumes that Engish is taught at home.

Perhaps Ms. Hawkins would know some of these facts, if she bothered to talk to a wide group of local people and report their perspectives accurately and without bias.