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For the moment at least, Minneapolis community and schools reach consensus

After years of stormy relations, longtime critics and Minneapolis school officials came together Tuesday in support of a broad new plan to restructure the city’s public schools.

In the hour Tuesday before Minneapolis school board members unanimously adopted a long-awaited plan for school reform, a Who’s Who of its antagonists stepped to the mic to speak. But instead of the shout-downs of years past, speaker after speaker offered the board their support.

“Two years ago, I never thought I’d be here saying what I’m gonna say,” said Alberto Monserrate, president of the Latino Communications Network and a longtime critic of Minneapolis Public Schools. “I want to congratulate you for doing this work.”

The work in question was consideration of a series of recommended school reforms released last month by the consulting group McKinsey & Co. Ranging from granting autonomy to poor-performing schools to creating an Office of New Schools to pilot innovative programs, the changes were the result of five months of pro bono research by McKinsey into what’s failing in Minneapolis and what’s working elsewhere.

“I’m not ready to say I’m jumping all the way on the bandwagon,” the Rev. Randy Staten said. “But we’re here to say we’re going to work with you.”

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The board also heard from and several elected officials as well as state Education Commissioner Alice Seagren and Thrivent Financial CEO Bruce Nicholson, who represents the Itasca Group, the Minnesota business consortium that arranged for McKinsey’s participation. All urged the board to accept entire set of recommendations, no matter how radical a departure from the status quo some might be.

“The one place where you can let people down is to flinch in this moment,” Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak said. “You are not in this alone.”

Board passes slimmed-down reform package
Most of the luminaries had left the room by the time the board got around to voting on the recommendation put forth by district administrators, which turned out to be a dramatically abbreviated version of what McKinsey produced. The presentation by the district’s Chief Academic Officer Bernadeia Johnson covered only the consultants’ most general recommendations — four pages versus McKinsey’s hundred.

Despite the unanimity, two board members criticized the plan during discussion as too watered down and general at this point.

Superintendent Bill Green explained that staff still had a lot of blanks to fill in. “In March, we will bring to the board a more comprehensive plan for the future,” he said, leaving unanswered whether the specifics would follow McKinsey’s recommendations. Board Chair Pam Costain said later that she believes staff members embrace the strategic change and will make good decisions.

New board faced year of turmoil
When the current board was sworn in last January, it inherited a district in chaos. There had been three superintendents in four years, two of whom left amid racial controversies. During the same time period, district enrollment fell nearly 25 percent. Nearly half of African-American students from North Minneapolis left district schools.

Four of the board’s seven members were new, having won election on reform platforms. Their first few weeks in office were packed with the selection of a new superintendent, large-scale school closings and other politically charged decisions.

In May, an organization of policy-minded business leaders known as the Itasca Group approached the board and offered McKinsey’s help. The prestigious consulting firm’s participation drew the attention of Gov. Tim Pawlenty and Commissioner Seagren, if not pledges of help staunching the district’s projected $100 million shortfall.

In the weeks leading up to Tuesday’s meeting, community and business leaders made no secret of their fear that the board might not have the stomach to order sweeping change. The same critics have long complained that many district administrators work hard to preserve the status quo and perceive some of McKinsey’s proposals as competitive threats.

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The consultants studied approaches working in other cities such as Boston, which has seen a dramatic increase in test scores in recent years since the creation of 20 independent “pilot schools.” Research has shown that many kids from low-income families who are struggling academically thrive with longer school days and rigorous curriculum. Accordingly, McKinsey urged the district to adopt the radical retooling of the poorest-performing 25 percent of programs as its highest priority.

The consultants suggested the district embrace an array of strategies for revamping the schools, including replacing them with new schools, handing them over to outside partners like charters, and creating small, autonomous programs with culturally specific focuses.

District administrators’ revised recommendation was more general: to restructure the failing schools, and increase flexibility and autonomy for the lowest- and highest-performing schools.

Gone, too, from the current plan was the Office of New Schools, which would have made decisions concerning programs slated for overhaul. McKinsey proposed that the department report directly to the board, which could respond more quickly than district administrators.

Some board members want more specifics
Not all board members were happy with specifics of the final product.

“I love the fact that everyone came down here today to tell us how bold we are,” board member Chris Stewart complained during the brief deliberation that preceded the unanimous vote. “But we’re a little off the mark.”

The principles the board was being asked to ratify were so broad, he argued, that “no sentient being can disagree with any of this. I mean, ‘Duh.’ These are so general, and so foggy, we can do just about anything next year.”

Failing to deliver could cost the district the support of community leaders who were ready to set aside their doubts and join in the reform efforts, he explained later. “A lot of new money we could attract is tied to innovation.”

After hearing Stewart’s concerns and similar ones voiced by board member Theatrice “T.” Williams, board member Lydia Lee said perhaps it wasn’t accurate to call the initiative a strategic plan. “Maybe we should call it a strategic direction that we should go in,” she said.

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The board’s senior member, Sharon Henry-Blythe, disagreed with her colleagues’ criticisms. “I’ve seen a lot of strategic plans over the years, and they are substantial documents,” she said, noting that the plan before the board included specific, ambitious goals for student achievement. “These few pieces of paper are making more of a statement than anything I’ve seen in all my years on the board.”

Among the elements carried over from McKinsey’s plan to the district’s revision is a pledge to ensure that every student leaves Minneapolis schools college-ready. By 2012, 80 percent of students would have acceptable scores on math, reading and college entrance exams.

“We have pissed and moaned about this, but we have never set down the line,” Henry-Blythe continued, glowering at Stewart. “Put your money where your mouth is? This document does it.”

At least one revision made by administrators might be credited with winning much of the support the board received from its loyal opposition. If letting someone else take a stab at running failing schools fell to the bottom of the agenda, reducing the achievement gap by 75 percent rose to the very top.

According to the revised plan, identifying and eliminating institutional racism should be the district’s highest priority. In recent years, board meetings have frequently devolved into racially charged shouting matches. But virtually everyone who addressed the board last night praised the district’s willingness to address race so openly.

The minority leaders also made it clear that their return to the table isn’t necessarily permanent. The district will have to go ahead with the promised changes and do a better job listening to low-income families, particularly on the North Side.

Contract negotiations complicate plans
Most difficult, they asked board members to stick to their guns in ongoing contract negotiations with the teachers union, which is dead-set against a district proposal to change their contract to allow principals to select their staffs using other criteria than seniority. In recent weeks, rumors of a possible strike have circulated among district parents, and teachers wearing red shirts packed last night’s meeting.

After the vote had been tallied, Stewart commiserated with frequent critic Monserrate. “This isn’t the proposal I saw last Friday,” Montserrate complained. “Me either,” replied Stewart. “It was a bold plan that was gutted.”

Still, he was quick to add, there’s nothing in the current revision that rules out any of McKinsey’s more dramatic recommendations. Coming weeks will tell whether the reforms can still be described as radical.

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Beth Hawkins, former reporter and editor for City Pages, writes about schools, criminal justice and other topics.