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The rise of voluntarily segregated schools: new trend, familiar problems

Just when it seemed that educators and society were finally on the same page on the importance of integrated public schools, members of a key group changed their mind.

Middle-school science students work on an experiment at the Afrocentric Education Academy at Minneapolis' North High. From the left are Dashawn Williams, Wayland Johnson II, Elvis Stewart (in background) and Anthony Wallace.
MinnPost photo by Bill Kelley
Middle-school science students work on an experiment at the Afrocentric Education Academy at Minneapolis’ North High. From the left are Dashawn Williams, Wayland Johnson II, Elvis Stewart (in background) and Anthony Wallace.

Third of five parts.

Just when it seemed that educators and society were finally on the same page on the importance of integrated public schools, members of a key group changed their mind.

To urban school districts’ surprise, their biggest skeptics in recent years have proved to be unhappy minority families.

Embittered by perennially sagging test scores and the lack of a diverse faculty at many public schools — and anxious for children to learn about their heritage — growing numbers of minority families have embraced schools that place an emphasis on students’ racial and ethnic identities.

Academic outcomes are decidedly mixed, but in a few short years, the voluntarily segregated school has acquired a patina of desirability, even though numerous studies show minority students do better in integrated schools.

Single-race charter schools complicate challenge
A key reason why is the rise of charter schools, a 17-year-old national innovation begun in Minnesota. Charter schools tend to be organized around a single focus or curriculum, and in the core cities, they frequently are tailored to a single race or ethnicity. Unlike conventional public schools, charter schools are not bound by desegregation rules.

Now, a decade after Minneapolis and St. Paul began hemorrhaging students to Latino, Southeast Asian or Afrocentric charters, mainline districts are creating culturally specific programs in an effort to compete. (Public schools have long operated special schools for American Indians under a separate set of federal regulations, mostly as an effort to help preserve American Indian languages and identities, not as a response to test scores or other marketing pressures.)

The counter-trend of voluntarily segregated schools is a tough one for many educators.

“I am personally deeply ambivalent about this issue,” said Pam Costain, a member of the Minneapolis Board of Education. “On the one hand, it’s a core belief of mine that a well-integrated district serves us best. [But] it’s complicated by the fact that whether Minneapolis goes in that direction [of voluntarily segregated schools], charters have gone in that direction, and that creates very real competitive pressure on Minneapolis Public Schools.”

It’s a situation, though, that the Minneapolis district has embraced in recent months.

At the start of the new academic year this fall, for example, administrators at Minneapolis Public Schools were scrambling to deal with overstuffed classrooms on the city’s beleaguered North Side. But they could not have been more delighted.

The arrival of 100 new students was particularly meaningful to administrators, who spent the spring and summer pounding the pavement asking what it would take to woo back minority parents who had moved their kids to charter schools. Southeast Asian parents had asked for more space in the Hmong International Academy, where a quiet environment helped assure them their kids were safe.

Minneapolis district brass listened: In an era of school closings, they moved the K-8 program from the cramped building it shared with another program into the former North Star Elementary School, mothballed two years ago as a result of declining enrollment.

North Side exodus 
Since 2001, district enrollment has declined by about a third. The exodus has been particularly striking on the North Side, where half of school-age children, the majority of them African-American, are now bused to suburban districts or to charter schools closer to home.

In addition to the Hmong International Academy, the Afrocentric Education Academy serves middle-schoolers at Minneapolis’ North High. New this year is Heritage Academy of Science & Technology, a contract program serving many Somali students in grades 7 to 10 at Folwell Middle School in south Minneapolis.

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St. Paul has operated a Hmong-language program for new arrivals for several years at the former Wilson High School site but this year opened its first culturally specific program, Phalen Lake Elementary Hmong Studies and Core Knowledge Magnet, on the East Side. 

Both districts also operate contract alternatives that serve particular racial or ethnic groups.

The schools do not violate anti-segregation rules because they are open to all students, who attend voluntarily and are not placed there on the basis of their race. As a part of ongoing strategic planning for reform, the Minneapolis district is considering the creation of more.

There is no central list of culturally specific schools, but some published reports have suggested that the first was a Hmong charter, HOPE (Hmong Open Partnerships in Education) Community Academy, which opened its doors on St. Paul’s East Side in 2000. In its wake, dozens more have popped up.

Minority students in general perform better in mixed-race schools

With rare exceptions, minority students perform better on state-mandated standardized tests in mixed-race schools than culturally specific schools. Here’s a look at the percentage* of students deemed proficient at reading and math on the Minnesota Comprehensive Assessments in selected Twin Cities charters and Minneapolis Public Schools.

*All scores rounded up to the nearest 5 percent
Percent proficient
in reading/ math
Making Adequate
Yearly Progress?


Afrocentric Educational Academy 35/20 No
Hmong International Academy 25/30 No


Lucy Craft Laney 20/15 No
Nellie Stone Johnson 35/25 No
North High School 25/15 No
Park View 50/50 No


Aurora (Latino) 35/35 No
Community of Peace (Asian) 45/45 No
Community School of Excellence (Asian) 15/20 No
El Colegio** 15/10 Yes
Hmong Academy 30/10 No
Tarek Ibn Ziyad Academy-Inver Grove Heights 70/80 Yes
Tarek Ibn Ziyad Academy-Blaine 100/90 Yes
Urban Academy (black) 20/10 No
**El Colegio is making Adequate Yearly Progress as a new school.


Nova Classical Academy 95/90 Yes

(88 percent white; minorities scored as high)

Twin Cities Academy 95/80 Yes

(3/4 white: Asians and blacks scored as well or better in reading than whites and often close in math)

Source: Minnesota Department of Education

Lagging in test scores
Over the years, studies indicate that minority children in desegregated schools do better in school and are more successful later in life. The more time minority students spend in desegregated elementary schools, the higher their test scores in middle and high school.

But how are culturally specific schools doing?

Minnesota Department of Education records for 32 such charters in the central cities and inner-ring suburbs surveyed by MinnPost revealed few schools with 2007-2008 test scores high enough to qualify as making adequate yearly progress under the federal No Child Left Behind law. At almost all of the single-race schools, the majority of students come from poor families.

At the best-performing Asian schools, about half of the students passed state math and reading proficiency exams; most scored far lower. At the vast majority of Latino and African-American programs, fewer than half of students scored as proficient. At some schools, as few as 5 or 10 percent of students passed the tests. 

Scores at both segregated and culturally specific Minneapolis schools hovered in the same range. Afrocentric Educational Academy’s reading score was 35; math was 20. At the Hmong International Academy, 20 percent were proficient readers, and 30 percent passed in math. Neither program made adequate yearly progress.

The highest-scoring African-American charter school was Harvest Prep, where 60 percent of students passed the test.

The highest-performing culturally specific program is the majority-Muslim Tarel Ibn Ziyad Academy (TIZA), a high-profile school that recently defended itself against complaints that its taxpayer-funded programming had Islamic overtones. (A state Department of Education investigation found most of the allegations raised by Star Tribune columnist Katherine Kersten baseless.) Seventy percent of students at TIZA’s Inver Grove Heights location tested proficient in reading, while 80 percent passed the math test. At the school’s Blaine site, 100 percent and 90 percent of students in reading and math, respectively, were rated proficient.

Education scholars disagree about the meaning of the test scores. Some attribute the low numbers to inner-city charters usually ending up with poor minorities who are not doing well in regular schools, while middle-class children of color are more likely to leave Minneapolis and St. Paul schools via open enrollment. Others contend that when it comes to concentrations of impoverished children, there’s nothing in particular about a school’s governance that makes it more or less likely to succeed.

Test scores at urban charters were much higher than at schools where virtually all of the students are minorities. At Nova Classical Academy, 95 percent of students are proficient at reading and 90 percent at math. Blacks and Latinos scored as highly or better than their white classmates at Twin Cities Academy, where 90 percent passed the reading test and 80 percent mastered math.

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(The picture is muddied somewhat by the emergence of a separate charter movement composed of programs with a laser-like focus on achievement and an emerging track record of high scores. Characterized by long school days, Saturday classes and a cadre of teachers available 24/7, the schools cater to inner-city students. Minnesota’s first such school, part of the highly touted Knowledge Is Power Program, opened this fall in Minneapolis. Most KIPP schools serve exclusively children of color, but not with an ethnocentric curriculum.)

Focused more on culture than academics
Locally, parents seem to desire programs focused on a particular ethnicity not so much for high test scores as for cultural reasons. “They’re softer things,” said Minneapolis board member Costain. “Across all groups they’re looking for a sense of community. They want their children to be taught by people who look like them. They’re looking for the ritual and celebration of their cultures.”

Those are elements the Minneapolis district is struggling to provide in mainline public schools, noted board member Chris Stewart. Because the layoffs of recent years started at the bottom of union seniority lists, they cost the district many of its minority teachers. Last year, several high-poverty schools were reorganized — or “Fresh Started,” in district jargon — and union hiring rules changed. 

It’s not clear whether culturally specific schools have become desirable because parents prefer their kids learn largely or exclusively alongside others like them, or because they want schools that have a sense of community. Hmong International Academy outgrew its old home mostly because the Minneapolis district listened to what Southeast Asian community leaders said they wanted: a calm, orderly school.

Not only has the program drawn Hmong children back to the district, but its peaceful environment has attracted some students who are not Asian. “On the first day of kindergarten, I went over to Hmong International to greet the little kids and I was surprised to see white kids and African-American kids,” said Lydia Lee, chair of the Minneapolis board. “The principal said a lot of families knew this would be a school where academics would be the focus. In that, maybe we can see a little bit of integration creep in.”

Meanwhile, enrollment at Minneapolis’ Afrocentric program hovers at about 80 students a year.

District leaders are still divided in terms of how comfortable they feel about voluntary segregation. Some, such as Stewart and Costain, like the idea of tempting parents back from charters but continue to believe that integrated schools are the ideal.

Others aren’t sure the district has a choice. “There’s been this demand from families to provide these ethnocentric programs. If we don’t provide them, they will just go to the charters,” said Lee. “These are just really, really hard decisions.”

The discussion has sparked a longer, ongoing conversation about integration’s role as Minneapolis works to improve performance and staunch the outflow of students. “It’s rearing its head over and over again as we look at what programs to keep open, what to close,” said Stewart. “No one is going to say they are against integration, but once we get that out of the way, there are varying thoughts on its level of importance on the agenda.”

As a part of implementing the strategic plan they adopted late last year, board members took up the question at a September retreat. “The larger question is: What is our commitment to integration in a district that is already very, very hard to integrate?” said Costain. “The sheer demographics really make this a tough issue no matter what our values are.”

Beth Hawkins writes about criminal justice, schools and other topics. She can be reached a bhawkin [at]minnpost [dot ]com. Cynthia Boyd writes on education, health, social issues and other topics. She can be reached at cboyd[at]minnpost [dot] com.

Monday: Twin Cities-area schools more segregated than ever

Tuesday: Minority populations in suburbs rise — and so do number of segregated schools

Thursday: State and educators can’t agree on how to spend integration funds

Friday: A better way to integrate schools: by race and class