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West metro integration district may reinvent itself, spinning off 2 schools in the process

Without the two FAIR schools to run, WMEP would reinvent itself as the go-to resource on race equity issues for its 11 member districts.

The West Metro Education Program is a consortium of 11 west metro area school districts.

On Wednesday night, a consortium of west metro area school districts will take up the future of two schools that were created a quarter of a century ago to promote integration. Whatever is decided, it will be a watershed moment in Minnesota’s quest for racial equity in education.

At its monthly meeting, the multidistrict joint powers board that governs the West Metro Education Program (WMEP) will hear a proposal to turn its FAIR schools over to the districts where they are located. The districts would commit to continuing the successful, popular programs as they are for a number of years.

Minneapolis would take over the program’s downtown campus, which currently serves high school students and students in kindergarten through third grades. Robbinsdale would take over a building in Crystal serving grades 4-8.

Without the schools to run, WMEP would reinvent itself as the go-to resource on race equity issues for its 11 member districts, most of which are struggling to equip an overwhelmingly white teacher corps to better serve students of color.

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And the new structure would eliminate the need for an expensive — and in WMEP’s history sometimes troubled — leadership team.

‘A huge opportunity’

“We see this as a huge opportunity,” said Minneapolis Public Schools (MPS) CEO Michael Goar, who will become MPS interim superintendent at the end of the month. “All of the schools are struggling with equity and diversity. Because of the changing landscape they all struggle with gaps between subgroups.”

The potential shift comes as another of the Twin Cities’ three integration districts, the East Metro Integration District (EMID), is confronting similar issues. EMID last year used the same state process being contemplated by its western counterpart to “convey” its two schools to two of its 10 member districts. One of its members, West St. Paul-Mendota Heights-Eagan, announced last week it is considering withdrawing.

“There was a time when creating that integrated setting was really useful,” said Melissa Krull, a former WMEP board member who trains school and district leaders at Minnesota State University Mankato. “There was a time when the suburban districts were not the diverse districts they are today.”

As the superintendent who oversaw a bruising effort to balance school demographics in Eden Prairie several years ago, Krull is intimately familiar with integration’s difficulties.

Minnesota law defines segregation according to the demographic differences between districts and requires “racially isolated” school districts to have plans for working to offset the disparities. The integration districts were established as a way for districts to collaborate.

A generation ago, integration and academic achievement were part and parcel of the same dream in most people’s minds. No matter their race or family income, kids who attended integrated schools were more likely to flourish.

Magnet schools

When central cities couldn’t stop white flight, the concept of magnet schools was born. An attractive curriculum could integrate a school organically by drawing kids from different geographic areas.

A quarter of a century ago, the FAIR schools were created to combat segregation by drawing students from both mostly white suburban districts and Minneapolis, where students of color make up a majority. For teachers, the K-12 programs would function as a lab where they could learn best practices to take back to the 11 participating districts.

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The multidistrict co-op that ran the schools could fulfill other integration-related functions, including administering The Choice is Yours, a now-defunct program that used state funding to bus poor Minneapolis pupils to suburban schools as part of the settlement of a federal civil rights action.

In practice, however, the Hennepin Avenue school — originally the K-12 Interdistrict Downtown School — drew suburban minorities. The arts-focused Crystal middle school FAIR attracted large numbers of white Minneapolis families looking to circumvent the urban district’s middle schools.

(Full disclosure: The author’s children attended the downtown school for four years ending in 2007.)

The potential for cross-pollination in terms of practice was lessened when teachers ended up forced to choose between returning to their home districts or joining a WMEP bargaining unit. And there were questions from Minneapolis and other member districts about whether the schools were in fact more successful.

An arts-themed program

A reorganization several years ago essentially turned the two schools into one arts-themed program with two campuses. Students began kindergarten downtown, moved to Crystal in the fourth grade and then moved back downtown for high school. Enrollment surged and early literacy — the most important achievement indicator — grew commensurately.

But there were problems with principal turnover and in 2013 with an expensive and murky investigation into unexplained allegations made by the schools’ principal against its superintendent, who subsequently retired. Parents struggled to get answers from a board composed of a board member and superintendent’s designee from each member district.

portrait of keith lester
Keith Lester

Into the chair vacated by Dan Jett stepped Keith Lester, himself retired from the superintendent’s post in Brooklyn Center, a WMEP member. His charge: To chart options for the district’s future.

Lester has spent the last few months meeting with district stakeholders, who told him their needs have changed. Research still supports the idea that kids benefit from learning alongside people from other backgrounds. But the FAIR schools enroll 1,000 students, a fraction of the 100,000 pupils WMEP districts must reach.

The administrative structure required by state law is expensive. The Choice is Yours no longer exists, although Minneapolis students still receive transportation to suburban districts.

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And state policies, while still recognizing that integration in and of itself has value, increasingly focus on pushing schools to do a better job of serving students of color.

Along those lines, WMEP’s members struggle with the same reality as other Minnesota districts: an overwhelmingly white teacher corps that is unevenly prepared to meet the needs of poor minorities.

Need for ‘really well-trained system’

“That leaves the need to become a really well-trained system in which we are able to reach all of the students in our classrooms,” said Krull. “That racial predictability — we’ve just got to be able to interrupt it.”

The integration district was already engaged in teacher professional development concerning race equity questions. Perhaps, said the leaders Lester heard from, the organization could dramatically ramp up its offerings — including a fledgling initiative to recruit and prepare teachers of color.

In terms of need, providing professional development just may be WMEP’s sweet spot. Mounting evidence suggests that one- and two-day workshops for teachers do not drive meaningful change in the classroom.

Better ongoing “embedded” services that take place at a school and involve a team of teachers who can observe one another and share the help of a coaching throughout the school year. This is especially true when it comes to changing a culture.

The shift is not a done deal. As communities that work hard to forge identities, schools rarely welcome change at first. Lester has been meeting with parents, teachers and others to explain what would change and what would stay the same.

MPS board to hear proposal Tuesday

MPS would like to take over the downtown campus, which it would not envision changing programmatically for a number of years, said Goar. He will present the proposal to the Minneapolis School Board Tuesday night.

Both buildings are in need of expensive deferred maintenance. And state lawmakers will have to agree to give the buildings to the home districts. Additionally, there is a complicated net of state laws addressing most potential glitches, such as job security for staff, to navigate.

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WMEP’s board is scheduled to hear community reactions to the plan at this month’s meeting and most likely to vote on it in February.

“This past fall was the first time we had more kids of color in our schools than white ones,” said Krull. “No matter where you are in schools in this country today, having a solid understanding of race and those relationships is really important.”