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Equity-impact policy not fully embraced: Illustrations surface in MPS board meeting

Forms are often filled out, but carrying out the intent of the assessment — to ask at critical junctures, will this advance or diminish equity? — is another story.

Tracine Asberry
MinnPost file photo by Bill KelleyTracine Asberry

For the last year and a half Minneapolis School Board Member Tracine Asberry has been trying to make a point. She’s listened, smiled and nodded at district staff that tender reports to the board.

She doesn’t get tired. She has posed gentle but leading follow-up questions. She has sweet-talked and cajoled colleagues whose facial expressions all but scream: Is Tracine going there again?

Specifically Asberry would like the district to put some teeth to a policy the board adopted in October 2013 requiring an equity impact assessment — the equity equivalent of an environmental impact statement — on every new policy or program.

Based on an assessment created by the Organizing Apprenticeship Project, since renamed Voices for Racial Justice, the assessment was hailed as a national model. In the months following its unanimous adoption, the board was rock-solid in pushing back at staff: Yes, we really do mean for you to do this.

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And Interim Superintendent Michael Goar has taken over direct oversight of the committee overseeing the assessment policy going forward.

The upshot is that forms often are now filled out, but the intent of the assessment — to ask at critical junctures, will this advance or diminish equity? — isn’t universally embraced. And so the systems- and process-oriented Asberry does handstands.

Why bring this up today? Because Tuesday night’s school board meeting served up any number of exhibits to illustrate the point.

Forthwith:

A) As a part of Goar’s effort to pare administrative staff, in recent days a proposal was made to fold Minneapolis Public Schools’ Indian Education Department into a new Office of Educational and Cultural Services that would house five only somewhat related offices.

Interim Superintendent Michael Goar
Minneapolis Public Schools
Interim Superintendent Michael Goar

The change was communicated to American Indian leaders who for eight years have had a memorandum of agreement with the district that makes them legal partners in making decisions about Native American students, the smallest and most poorly served group in the district.

To make a long story short, said leaders reminded MPS administrators of their legal commitments and said that eliminating a stand-alone office focused on making sure Native students were visible was a mistake.

MPS reacted swiftly, restoring the office and agreeing to appoint a new director. The American Indian leaders who showed up at Tuesday night’s meeting expressed their appreciation but were clear: Conversations with affected communities need to be had when changes are being considered, not as they are being made.

B) Minneapolis high schools are transitioning to seven-period days, which requires additional funding. Roosevelt High School already has a seven-period day, the results of which are one reason district leaders believe the change will drive achievement.

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Washburn and South are getting big funding bumps as a result of the change. Because it has already made the shift, Roosevelt isn’t. To boil down some very complicated math, this means the school is in effect dealing with a shortfall for next year of a quarter of a million dollars.

To say that any of the schools is low-poverty or not grappling with issues of equity would be inaccurate. But it is true that Roosevelt faces more inequities, something an assessment with teeth presumably would have flagged.

C) Exhibit C is Rochelle Cox, the district’s relatively new director of special education. She rose to speak Tuesday night after an impressive presentation by the new principal of Harrison, the MPS high school for special-ed students with the biggest behavioral needs.

Students — disproportionately black ones — frequently end up at Harrison after earning the label Emotional Behavioral Disorder when an adult perceives their attitude or behavior as defiant. It’s a vicious cycle and a one-way ticket: Almost no one graduates from Harrison.

Rochelle Cox
Minneapolis Public Schools
Rochelle Cox: “Each school needs to have a deep examination of their special education data and we need to go school by school.”

The school is about to undergo a “fresh start” whose success will depend, hugely and problematically, on the equity-minded shift the assessments were intended to drive.

Cox’s words:

We have identified every initial evaluation for an African-American student who was identified with Emotional Behavioral Disorder last year: 67 students. I have personally read every one of those evaluations. It keeps me up at night — 67 out of, I think we had initial [special education] evaluations of … over 400.

Those 67 students: I want to know why they were put through the system and why they qualified. Who made the referral? What were the interventions? Did we look at the cultural pieces behind their behavior? How did we identify them?

When we look at this as a group … believe me, we haven’t even looked at one as a group and we already have recommendations for things that need to change within the system. It is going to be a robust and intense discussion that I welcome, that is critically needed in our district.

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We will be looking at these recommendations and rolling them out to the district in the equity institute that we are planning this summer. We also have some interest nationally looking at what we are doing because no one has done it before.

And then we will be going school by school. Because each one of our schools is different. They are each units of change. Each school needs to have a deep examination of their special education data and we need to go school by school. And we are willing to do that.

…. It is going to be a ride. But we have some deep cultures here. And when we think of special education [it’s] not as a service but as a place that we put kids. And until we deal with that as a district we are not going to make movement forward. So we have dug deep, we have our core beliefs.

I know it’s getting late. I’d love to talk to you further, but that’s just an example of some of the work that we are moving forward with.