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North Minneapolis schools face crisis of confidence as board ponders strategic plan

By Beth Hawkins | Friday, Nov. 16, 2007
Declining numbers and continued community distrust mean something’s got to give if Minneapolis hopes to bolster schools on the city’s North Side.

Eric Pone and daughter
Photo by Craig Lassig
Eric Pone and his daughter, Isabel, are pleased with their family’s experience at Cityview School, but he worries about the fate of other schools on Minneapolis’ North Side.


With all of his involvement in the city’s education programs, Eric Pone could serve as poster-parent for the Minneapolis Public Schools’ efforts to shore up its struggling North Side schools. Even so, he is concerned enough about the district’s direction that he’s running for a seat on the school board.

Specifically, he’s worried the current board isn’t up to making some of the radical changes recently recommended by a long-awaited consultants’ report.

And he and other parents and community activists say there’s too much mistrust dividing the district and low-income and African-American families on the North Side for the community to survive any more conflict.

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Over the last six years, enrollment has fallen by more than 25 percent throughout the district, but the problem has been particularly acute on the city’s North Side. Half the community’s students, the majority African-American, are now bused to suburban districts or to charter schools closer to home. District projections see another 4 to 5 percent drop in enrollment annually.

Because education funding follows pupils, each North Side child enrolled elsewhere represents the loss of $16,000 — bad news for a district facing a projected cumulative budget shortfall of $96 million over the next four years.

The district has tried to solve the problem, only to make it worse.

School officials closed five North side schools last spring and transferred hundreds of displaced students to other programs, but then learned in the fall that there wasn’t enough classroom space for the remaining students. Further, the school board’s decision angered many parents who argue they were never allowed to voice their views.

Trust issue not going away
“People don’t trust us, particularly within the African-American community,” says board Chair Pam Costain.

So school officials now have turned to a private consulting firm to come up with ideas — no matter how radical — to help solve their problems.

A number of proposals could portend dramatic change. The consultants, for example, have urged the district to relinquish control of the poorest-performing 25 percent of schools; some might become charters, others might be managed by on-site staff. Small, culturally specific programs should be considered, and dramatic change is needed in the way schools are staffed.

The district this week began a series of community meetings to discuss the consultants’ recommendations.

Earlier this year, when the Minneapolis School Board was deciding whether to hire Bill Green as its permanent superintendent, some members approached the Itasca Project, a group of Minnesota executives concerned about public policy issues, including education. As part of the initiative, the consulting firm McKinsey & Co. agreed to help the district formulate a strategic plan for reform.

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“McKinsey said, ‘We don’t believe incremental change is possible,’ ” says Costain. ” ‘Are you ready to have no sacred cows?’ ” Her reply: The board is ready to put everything on the table.

On the trust issue, Costain says, “There’s nothing I believe the board can do about that other than create good schools with good results.”

Cityview challenging school with challenging problems
That approach holds promise for Pone and his family. His four kids are flourishing at Cityview Performing Arts Magnet, a block and a half off Lowry Avenue. His oldest daughter is president of the student council, and one of his sons is on the chess team. A stockbroker, Pone finds time in his schedule to serve on the District Parent Advisory Committee.

“For us, Cityview is a pretty easy choice,” he says. “It’s challenging in ways that other schools in the city aren’t, and it has a great principal and staff.”

When the district closed five North Side schools last spring, it transferred hundreds of displaced students to other programs. Cityview was undersubscribed and has accommodated the newcomers easily enough, Pone says, although staff is working hard to communicate the school’s strict behavioral expectations to everyone.

But there’s a trend that can’t be ignored. “The concentration of poor, special-needs, and African-American kids is increasing at Cityview,” he says. The increased segregation is accompanied by social problems no school district can solve, he says, such as a lack of jobs, housing and stability. A disproportionate number of kids from these fragile families — particularly African-American boys — end up labeled by the schools as behaviorally challenged.

Board member Tom Madden is particularly excited about proposals that would allow individual schools to choose where to take their business. “A school can choose to buy a service from the district or not,” he says. If a school chose to use an outside vendor for, say, computer services, he adds, “that would be a wakeup call for that department.”

“I see this as a way for us to keep pushing for our financial systems to work for us,” says Madden.

Pone and other parents and community organizers see much to recommend in the report, but they also fear it’s too little too late. When the current board members were sworn in at the beginning of the year, they inherited a district in turmoil. There have been four superintendents in four years, two of whom left following a racially inflamed controversy. The district paid $180,000 to sever relations with the last, Thandiwe Peebles.

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Click on chart to enlarge


North Side Initiative controversial
Within weeks, the board announced the North Side Initiative, a plan to close schools and use the savings to shore up programming in the remaining programs. The district conducted hearings on the proposed school closings, but parents and activists angrily charged that decisions were being made too fast for them to have any meaningful input. A key community forum was scheduled two days before the board voted on which schools to shutter.

“There was never any process that heard people,” says Kinshasha Kambui, a former education policy aide to Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak and a community organizer with the African-American Mobilization Project. “Board members themselves were upset with how this process went forward.” (A strong reform proponent, board member Chris Stewart nonetheless voted against the closings, saying the plan was too hastily conceived.)

Three months into the new school year, tempers are still inflamed over the closing of Lincoln Community School, on Penn Avenue just north of Olson Memorial Highway. Neighbors had begged the board to keep the school open and give it the same “Fresh Start” reorganization slated for Lucy Laney and Nellie Stone Johnson, two other failing schools that would remain open.

“Academically, Lincoln was not cutting it,” says Pone. “It was absolutely horrible.” But unlike many other schools, Lincoln was open to community groups on nights and weekends. It abuts Willard-Hay, a stable, upper-middle-class African-American community with an active neighborhood association, as well as a redeveloping stretch of Plymouth Avenue that’s home to a new University of Minnesota outreach center.

It was the last straw, according to Pone, Kambui and others. “When we lost Lincoln,” says Pone, “that’s when the board lost credibility.”

And so when the reconfigured schools opened their doors in September, it was to families with high expectations and little trust that their needs would be met. Parents had been promised that savings from the closings would allow the district to bring class sizes down to 21 in kindergarten through third grades. (Previously, class sizes hovered in the 28 to 30 range.)

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Sellano Simmons has two children at Elizabeth Hall International School. He was shocked to learn when he showed up at the beginning of the year that there were 27 and 32 children registered for his kids’ classes. Not all of them showed up, and within a few weeks, both kids’ classes were at the promised size.

Class size complicated issue
The district had anticipated losing 2,300 kids this school year, but only lost about 1,600. As a consequence, many elementary schools initially were bursting at the seams, with class sizes as high as 35. Although board chair Costain says no primary-grade class now has more than 23 students, many people continue to believe the class-size commitment wasn’t honored.

Complicating matters, when the McKinsey consultants began sharing their work with community groups, they said their research showed that smaller classrooms did not dramatically increase low-income student achievement unless there were fewer than 15 kids in a class and the teacher was using specialized instructional methods.

Research aside, Costain says the district is committed to keeping elementary classes small. “Class sizes matter in terms of teacher satisfaction and behavioral support,” she says.

But the back-and-forth discussions concern Simmons. “They kept presenting us with this magical number,” he says. “We’re not clear on what success looks like in this plan. And in defining success, who is defining it?”

Compounding the lingering ire over Lincoln’s closing is a rumor that all North Side schools have waiting lists. The schools do, district administrators say, but critics are wrong if they think this means North Minneapolis kids are being denied seats in North Minneapolis schools.

As a part of the North Side Initiative, every elementary school in the area now offers pre-kindergarten programs, and more than 90 percent of the 248 kids on the lists are 4- and 5-year-olds whose parents hoped to enroll them, administrators say. The others are North Side kids hoping for a seat in a different school in the area.

Wait lists or no, there’s no shortage of places for students to go. A new charter high school operated by Dunwoody Institute was at capacity when it opened its doors this fall. (There are a few seats at the moment: “Some students showed up and found us more rigorous than anticipated,” Director Eric Mahmoud explained.)

New schools in spotlight
The Audubon Center of the North Woods will open two schools in Minneapolis, Bright Water Elementary and a K-8 school that has yet to be named. Pillsbury United Communities will sponsor the Richard Allen Math and Science Academy for middle-schoolers. Volunteers of America will sponsor the most visible of the new programs, two K-12 schools using the Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP).

The KIPP schools will be watched especially closely. The programs have a track record of dramatic increased in achievement in other struggling urban areas, but have been criticized for being segregated. KIPP’s arrival illustrates another dilemma that will have to be confronted in the strategic planning process: the role of culturally specific instruction.

New this year is the Afrocentric Academy, housed at North High School. But outside of that, many community members complain that the district remains squeamish about race issues. “My oldest daughter has not read Langston Hughes,” says Pone. “I read Langston Hughes. I read Plato. I got a great education in this district. [But] I don’t know if this board is going to do this in a way that’s culturally relevant.”

Segregation by race and class is the thorniest of the bedrock issues underlying the current crisis. In 1992, nine Twin Cities schools were deemed segregated, according to Myron Orfield, an urban education expert and executive director of the University of Minnesota’s Institute on Race and Poverty.

By 2002, the number had risen to 102, and there are many more now. Orfield attributed the rapid rise in segregation to the weakening of the state’s desegregation rules in the late ’90s and to demographic changes. Families that have options won’t keep their kids in segregated schools, he said, adding that by 2000, 70 percent of married African-American couples with children were living in suburbs. Their departures accelerated the concentration of more children of color from low-income homes in North Minneapolis schools.

“Racially and socially isolated schools destroy children’s lives,” says Orfield, adding that Minneapolis can’t solve the problem alone. Metro area governments need to address housing, jobs and the other problems Pone singled out, he says. And suburban schools need to open more slots for central-city children.

For Kambui, the biggest wake-up call for the board in the McKinsey report is the finding that North Side families don’t feel welcome in the schools. Good grades and orderly schools would go a long way toward restoring the connection, she says, but the board and district administrators need to understand that better communication might be even more important.

“We are demanding to be the experts in our children,” says Kambui.

Beth Hawkins, former reporter and editor for City Pages writes about criminal justice, schools and other topics. She can be reached at bhawkins [at] minnpost [dot] com.