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MPS board to vote on controversial high-school enrollment plan

Most controversially, the board is expected to approve a plan estimated to cost at least $47 million to create space for 450 new students at Southwest High School.

Over the next five years, southwest Minneapolis, served by Southwest and Washburn (shown above), is projected to gain 1,000 high-school students.

The Minneapolis School Board is scheduled to vote tonight on a controversial five-year enrollment plan that’s aimed at relieving overcrowding at some schools, beefing up programming at others and providing a community school for families in the city’s revitalized downtown North Loop area.

Community members can muster enthusiasm for some of the individual changes contemplated, but the lengthy, convoluted plan has few real fans. Some are questioning MPS’ commitment to equity, reaffirmed last month when board members adopted a rule requiring an “equity impact assessment” of all new programs and policies.

Most controversially, the board is expected to approve a plan estimated to cost at least $47 million to create space for 450 new students at Southwest High School. By contrast, the ideas for drawing new students to the city’s impoverished north side schools include offering bus passes to residents of other districts in the hope they will open-enroll.

“What they are going to do is double-down on privilege,” said Chris Stewart, executive director of the African American Leadership Forum. “If you already have inequity, why build on more capacity to add more students?”

Last major change in 2009

Stewart served on the board during the last major enrollment change, the 2009 process known as Changing Schools Options. In part because of a last-minute decision to assign a vocal, affluent north side neighborhood to Southwest, the effort failed to fix some of the same problems the current plan — in its third iteration since September — is likely to leave unresolved. 

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Red-hot divisive in every school district, the recasting of attendance boundaries has an especially ugly history in Minneapolis Public Schools. (MPS).

The city’s shifting demographics have forced the district to revisit enrollment plans several times in the last two decades. Because of dramatic differences in offerings and outcomes among schools, the process has been politically fraught each time. The end result: Board members and district leaders tinker and tweak and refine until the new map looks more like a chain of Band-Aids than a plan.

Over the next five years, southwest Minneapolis, served by Southwest and Washburn, is projected to gain 1,000 high-school students. The district’s other three attendance areas will remain stable or lose a small number of residents.

Extensive course offerings

A perennial fixture atop “best schools” lists, Southwest is commonly regarded as Minnesota’s best high school. It has the lowest poverty rate of the district’s high schools and several times as many course offerings as some of its peers.

Students can choose between residential architecture, wind ensemble and several different types of dance, for instance. There are almost three dozen International Baccalaureate offerings.

District leaders have long defended the school’s smorgasbord of rigorous academics and boutique extracurriculars as justified by its stuffed-beyond-capacity enrollment.  

Unique courses offered at Minneapolis high schools

Source: Minneapolis Public Schools via Chris Stewart

That kind of programming, the thinking has been, is hard to justify in schools like Roosevelt, which has space for another 1,000 students, or Edison, which enrolls just half its 1,400 capacity. All told, five of the district’s seven high schools are hundreds of students under capacity.

The lack of said programming is, however, the reason families are unwilling to consider the district’s other high schools — with the sometime exception of Washburn — as desirable alternatives to Southwest.

New zone

The proposed enrollment plan on the board’s agenda tonight would also decrease overcrowding in southwest sector elementary and middle schools by creating a new attendance area serving downtown, the warehouse district and sectors of northeast Minneapolis. Students in the new zone eventually would be funneled to Edison.

Several schools in the northern and south segments of the district would be relocated or “co-located” with other programs; several will see their “pathways” realigned to send students to a new middle school and then to undersubscribed high schools. Seward Montessori would get nine new classrooms.

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Because they are overcrowded, few schools in the southwest sector will experience change beyond the shift under way in most communities to all-day kindergarten.

Students would be diverted from Kenwood, Bryn Mawr and Anthony. Some English language learners would be diverted from Lyndale — which acquired a large number of wealthy families during the Changing  Schools Options — to a new-to-country language program elsewhere.

In part, the overcrowding in the southwest sector is because too many seats were eliminated during the last round of enrollment changes. A differently configured board failed to account for projected population growth when it redrew the map.

“The thing about Changing Schools Options is we were not supposed to come back to the public a couple of years later,” said Stewart.

The moment proposed changes were announced in 2009, families began complaining. “All of a sudden you had board members responding to 80 different constituencies,” said Stewart.

The Bryn Mawr decision

One of the most vocal was composed of parents in Bryn Mawr, an affluent neighborhood located just south of the city’s near north side. Upset that their students were to be tracked either to North or Patrick Henry, they demanded that they either have guaranteed access to Southwest or that all southwest-sector families living north of Lake Street and west of Interstate 35W also be funneled to North.

Over a couple of no votes and under tremendous pressure from some ranking DFLers, the board relented. The district quickly moved to close North — then dying on the vine — sparking outrage from a different population.

“It was a bad decision then, it’s a bad decision now,” said Stewart. “We were under pressure to do it.”

North was reopened last year with an entering class of 50 and has made impressive strides. The new plan calls for adding another program in the mostly vacant building to serve an additional 300 students.

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Question of equity

The new North and the old program that’s being phased out offer just 80 options, compared to the nearly 250 at Southwest, Stewart pointed out. Using enrollment to justify the disparity, he and others argue, will only reinforce it.

The relevant policy, he noted, makes no reference to enrollment: “The purpose of this policy is to ensure that equal educational opportunity is provided for all students of the Minneapolis Public Schools District.

“It is the policy of the Minneapolis Public Schools to provide equal educational opportunity for all of its students.

“This policy applies to all areas of education including academics, coursework, co-curricular and extracurricular activities, or other rights or privileges of enrollment.”

The enrollment plan is just one of several meaty issues on the board agenda tonight.