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Worried parents, tense times complicate Minneapolis schools’ overhaul

Tensions have been rising for weeks over the scale of planned changes for the Minneapolis public school system. Many parents fear that the proposals could uproot kids from successful schools and force them into struggling ones.

Pam Costain, Chris Stewart
MinnPost photo by Craig Lassig
Minneapolis School Board members Pam Costain and Chris Stewart interact at a Tuesday meeting with parents concerned about proposed changes affecting the district’s public schools.

The Minneapolis Public Schools parent advisory group had just called its meeting to order last Monday night when Chris Stewart slipped into the room. Quietly, he slid into a seat at the back of the room, opposite the dais where he and the other school board members usually sit when they’re here, and next to a man with his elementary school-age daughter.

The two nodded hellos. And then the father broke into a grin. “Hot in here,” he quipped, laughing.

Stewart snorted and shot back a rueful smile. The temperature was actually quite comfortable, but the remark was dead-on. On the agenda was a preview of the district’s controversial proposal for changing the way students are assigned to schools. The parents present each represented a different MPS program, and each stood to lose something in the reorganization.

Tensions have been rising for weeks over the scale of the planned overhaul, which parents fear could uproot kids from successful schools and force them into struggling ones. Stewart, elected to the school board in 2006, has landed squarely at the center of the most headline-grabbing chapter of the entire saga.

During his visit to Burroughs Community School last month, Stewart, who is black, and Principal Tim Cadotte, who is white, got into a heated argument about race. The following Monday, Cadotte was placed on paid administrative leave pending outside investigation into the dustup. Cadotte is being reinstated to his post today, even though the district’s investigation will not be complete for several more days.

Cadotte-Stewart incident prompts meetings, rallies
In the wake of the incident, Burroughs’ tightly knit, vocal and politically connected parents have organized meetings and rallies and pelted board members and news media with angry letters demanding Cadotte’s reinstatement and calling for Stewart’s resignation. Much of the din is heard most loudly online, at websites with names like Save Tim Cadotte and Chris Stewart Resign Now.

The outcry put district administrators under tremendous pressure, particularly after seven Minneapolis DFL lawmakers wrote to School Board Chair Tom Madden demanding Cadotte’s reinstatement. Among those signing the letter are House Speaker Margaret Anderson Kelliher and Patricia Torres Ray, who sits on the state Senate’s education and E-12 education finance committees.

There are several bills of crucial importance to Minneapolis under debate at the Legislature right now, including the ultimate fate of the program that pays for integration programming.

Located at 1501 W. 50th St. in the city’s southwest quadrant, Burroughs has been Minneapolis’ most-requested elementary school in recent years. In a district struggling to graduate half of its class, Burroughs students post unimpeachable test scores but face far fewer challenges than other pupils.

Just 20 percent of its students come from low-income households, far fewer than the district average of two-thirds. Three-fourths are white, as opposed to an average school enrollment of 30 percent. Just 6 percent are African-American, compared with a district-wide average of 40 percent.

Neither Cadotte nor Stewart will discuss the April 17 incident, and district administrators also decline to comment. Events leading up to the incident provide context for the encounter but also suggest that the resulting controversy threatens to overshadow a reform plan with tectonic implications for most Minneapolis families.

“One of the reasons the Burroughs situation makes me very sad is I believe we were cracking open some very important conversations about race in our city, and now we are polarized,” said school board member Pam Costain. “We are 50 years post-Brown v. Board of Education and we have a very serious problem.”

Under the proposed reorganization, four schools would close in the city’s southern quadrant. New attendance boundaries may mean that children in the north, northeast and southeast areas — who have already suffered multiple disruptions in recent years — may have to change schools again. Compounding the pain, the schools to be shuttered aren’t poor performers, as in past rounds, but simply programs that can no longer be justified in light of an expected $28 million budget shortfall.

Societal change prompt radical changes
Shrinking enrollment, plummeting funding and concerns over the racial achievement gap in recent years have pushed the Minneapolis district to make radical changes to the city’s schools. In 2007, five elementary schools were shuttered on the North Side, which had lost fully half its mostly African-American students to charter and suburban schools.

That still left the district with enough classroom space for more than 50,000 students, even though enrollment had plunged to 33,000. Because of its complicated system of school choice, many kids are bused long distances to schools far from their neighborhoods. Rising fuel prices only added to the already burdensome cost of transportation.

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Meanwhile, Minneapolis schools have become overwhelmingly segregated. Class and race tend to go hand in hand in Minnesota. Schools in the city’s far southwest area draw primarily middle- and upper-class families while those on the North Side and parts of the south are crowded with impoverished ones.

Community schools tend to mirror the racial makeup of their surrounding neighborhoods. As a result, Minneapolis, like other large urban areas, created a number of magnet schools with specialized curriculums to try to tempt families from different backgrounds to send their kids to school together. Costs went up but, for the most part, achievement didn’t.

Two and a half years ago, a newly elected school board took a look at the situation and decided radical change was warranted. Drawing in part on recommendations made by consultants from McKinsey & Co., the board directed district administrators to begin making broad, structural reforms. And it asked them to keep issues of race and equity at the forefront.

Early this year, district administrators began meeting with people at different schools to explain their goals and gather feedback on possible changes. It was the first time the city’s wealthier schools had been affected by the reform process. As parents in south and southwest Minneapolis realized that their school choices would narrow, tensions began to mount.

Burroughs school focal point of bigger issues
Burroughs had long drawn Hispanic children from other parts of the city to a Native Language Literacy (NLL) program, a Cadotte creation that taught basic math and reading skills in a child’s first language, Spanish in this case, in early grades. The goal was to have children better poised for success when they moved into an English-speaking classroom in third grade.

The results were good, but according to district administrators, Burroughs did not draw enough families to fill its Spanish-only classrooms. That problem was exacerbated when rising fuel prices forced the district to shrink the NLL program’s attendance boundaries.

Hispanic enrollment peaked at 28 percent of the school’s student body but, by last year, had fallen to 17 percent. Because teachers are assigned by class, under-filled rooms like those in the NLL program became hard to justify. In the ’07-’08 school year, it had 62 students but was staffed for 78; this year, it has 39 students but is staffed for 52.

Meanwhile, the district has been under tremendous pressure to accommodate more white families from the surrounding neighborhood. A large number of Burroughs students come from the Kingfield and East Harriet neighborhoods, which don’t have a dedicated community school.

Like students from other “open areas,” these kids have been placed ahead of others requesting spots in popular programs in the school choice process. Families from the F2 district attendance area (Kingfield and East Harriet) have a number of choices, but 98 percent seek to enroll their children in the district’s three most sought-after programs: Burroughs, Lake Harriet Community School, and Barton Open.

Two years ago, the number of students seeking placement at those three schools jumped by 104; 70 of those requests were for Burroughs. For the first time, the district was unable to honor its commitment to find seats for all neighborhood and F2 children.

Currently, the number of unfilled seats in the Spanish-speaking program equal exactly the number of pupils who are making other school classrooms overcrowded, noted Jackie Turner, the district’s director of student placement. Last year, Minneapolis stopped accepting kindergarteners into Burroughs’ NLL program and announced it would close the program once current students had graduated into mainstream classrooms.

Parental meeting ignites controversy
On March 3, Burroughs parents gathered to hear a presentation on the potential changes by the district’s associate superintendent, Marianne Norris. Attendance boundaries would likely be redrawn, she told them, but because the new map would still mean the school was largely white, seats might be offered to children from other parts of the city.

One father asked why, if diversity was a goal, the school couldn’t keep its NLL program.      

Her reply, according to several accounts from people who were at the meeting, including Kip Wennerlund, co-chair of Burroughs’ policymaking group, its site council: “So what you’re saying is Hispanics are OK, but you don’t like blacks.”

Citing issues of personnel privacy in Cadotte’s case, Norris, who is Cadotte’s supervisor, declined to comment for this story. Her intent seemed to be pointing out how African-Americans could interpret their stance, but parents present say they were instantly put on the defensive. “Jaws dropped throughout the audience,” Wennerlund said. “She didn’t apologize. She didn’t back down or clarify. She didn’t do anything.”

“There was a lot of parent-to-parent communication,” said Wennerlund. “A lot of ‘Can you believe it.’ [Parents] were stunned, stunned.”

A couple of weeks later, the site council issued a statement to the board asking that the NLL program be retained to help satisfy the need for diversity. “We want to keep our Burroughs families together and the educational community we have built together intact,” the statement read. “This includes a recommitment to our Spanish-speaking families and to the highly developed bilingual resources that remain available at Burroughs. These are the foundations of our successful school and a part of our identity. …

“The way to improve is to build upon our current strengths, not to undertake dramatic changes that may be appropriate to other parts of the district,” it added. “Keeping these students and the staff who serve them is preferable to replacing these students with another group of students to address the identical issues of diversity and achievement.”

The statement, along with facts about the NLL program’s academic success, was blown up and displayed on a poster board in Burroughs’ entrance atrium, according to Wennerlund.

The controversial "Loser?" poster
Courtesy of Bill English
The controversial “Loser?” poster

Meanwhile, Kingfield and East Harriet parents were upset that even though they will end up getting a community school, they will be losing their preferential status for admission to Burroughs and other overcrowded southwest Minneapolis schools. One option raised by administrators was to assign all of the F2 families to Lyndale Community School, at 34th Street and Grand Avenue South. Currently, 64 percent of Lyndale’s students are African-American and 9 percent are white. More than half are learning English, and a whopping 92 percent are poor.

F2 parents created an online neighborhood forum, where they began discussing options. The most popular: Asking the district to strip Barton, located in the East Harriet neighborhood, of its magnet status and to make it the community school. More diverse than the area’s other schools with 35 percent minority students, Barton is extremely popular with southwest parents and with MPS employees, who enjoy preferential treatment when it comes to winning a spot.

Lyndale, the parents argued, isn’t big enough to accommodate all of the open area’s students. (In fact, Lyndale has five more classrooms than Barton, noted the district’s Turner.)

In late March, a white Kingfield father created a poster showing a photo of a white boy with the word “Loser?” stamped across his forehead and a brief statement about the neighborhood’s access to good schools being endangered below. He posted it to the neighborhood site and encouraged people to pass it on.

Another flyer was circulated, although community members aren’t sure when or by whom, warning in large type: “They want to give busing another try!” and “Don’t let them turn this into a race issue.”

Pivotal April 17 encounter
On April 17, Chris Stewart showed up at Burroughs unannounced and, according to Wennerlund, saw the blown-up site council statement. Wennerlund, one of the parents organizing the campaign in support of Cadotte, said he happened along a few minutes later, after the two men’s encounter but before district administrators ordered Cadotte not to talk about it. He says Cadotte told him that Stewart grabbed the poster, marched into the school’s outer office and insisted it was racist.

“I’m a racist?” Wennerlund said Cadotte told him he responded. “You’re a racist for making that claim.”

As the two men argued, Stewart claimed there were African-American families in Burroughs’ attendance area who were uncomfortable in the school and sent their children elsewhere, according to Wennerlund’s account.

District records show that 252 students from the neighborhoods in question attend Ramsey Fine Arts Magnet, one of the area’s most racially balanced schools with 23 percent white students, 35 percent African-American, and 37 percent Latino. To say that black families in the southwest area are clustered at Ramsey would be “a stretch,” according to Turner, who notes that there is no way for the district to track the race of children who choose a program other than their neighborhood school. However, she said, “It is true that families often choose schools that reflect their background and culture.”

The argument occurred on a Friday. After Stewart left, Wennerlund said, Cadotte’s supervisors summoned him to a meeting the following Monday at district headquarters. There, he was placed on paid administrative leave. Burroughs parents interpreted the move as discipline and demanded that Stewart be punished, too.

Online forums where district parents communicate quickly erupted.

Calls for his resignation were made by many, including some who mentioned an episode that took place in late 2006. On the eve of Stewart’s election to the board, he was fingered as the author of racial satire about Independence Party candidate Tammy Lee, who was running for the U.S. House against Keith Ellison. Stewart apologized and resisted calls to step down. Since then, he has adopted a more measured tone but has continued to be one of the board’s most blunt members.

Cadotte’s history is murkier. He is extremely popular with parents but also described as thin-skinned, hot-tempered and rigid in his exercise of control within his school. He created the NLL program and was proud of its place in the community but also enjoyed being at the helm of such a perennially popular school.

Racism issue raised
After several state lawmakers wrote to the board urging Cadotte’s swift return to his post, black community leaders stepped forward and urged that they suspend any rush to judgment.

Bill English, co-chair of the Council of Black Churches, urged Burroughs families to take a step back and consider that despite their intent,, the site council’s statement is offensive to African-Americans. “The language in there is at least offensive. and I perceive it as racist,” he said. “It says, ‘We prefer to have Hispanics than blacks.’ Any reasonable black person would perceive it as racist.”

On Friday, the school district announced that Cadotte will be back at work today, and that the retired principal who took his place while he was on leave will stay to assist him. The district investigation is expected to be completed soon.

English and other board members are also concerned that the Burroughs community’s reaction to the contemplated changes overshadow the impact of the proposals on other schools. Parents at Lake Harriet, which is 85 percent white, had already begun discussions about diversity. Its site council issued a statement calling the idea of busing in kids from other parts of the city “a win-win” and urging the board to alleviate overcrowding by ceding Barton to the open-area families.

A couple of miles west of Burroughs, Armatage currently houses both a community school and a Montessori magnet program. Families there are still mulling the news that the district is exploring making the entire school a Montessori program. No consensus has emerged either way.

One week after Cadotte was placed on suspension, district Superintendent Bill Green unveiled the administration’s recommendations. They call for closing three small elementary schools, Longfellow and Northrop in south Minneapolis and Pratt in southeast, and Folwell Middle School.  

In addition, five schools would be “demagnetized”: Cityview and Kenwood performing arts magnets and Pillsbury Math/Science/Technology magnet would remain open as community schools; Northrop and Park View Montessori would close altogether. The district’s open areas, which currently don’t have neighborhood schools, will end up with a designated community school, and some North Side students will be offered seats in southwest schools.

Controversy likely to linger
Even if the board adopts the recommendations, something that is far from certain, the controversy is unlikely to die down any time soon. Virtually all community school attendance boundaries will be redrawn over the summer, so families in open area will not know what their 2010-2011 options look like until this fall.  

For her part, Costain doesn’t think the administration has yet landed on a workable proposal. She is concerned that the needs of immigrant children are not addressed strongly enough, and disappointed that no workable solution for the southwest open-area issue has been advanced.

“There is too much pressure on Barton and Lake Harriet. Kids who live there can’t get in,” said Costain. “It is imperative in my mind that F2 have a strong option to come back to.”

She’s optimistic, however, that a strong plan can emerge. “Because this process has been so public and has upset so many people, it has made people very raw,” said Costain. “The good part of that is people have opened themselves up to examining their own assumptions.”

Even English, one of the district’s staunchest critics in the past, sees reason for hope. “This board — and this administration — has been the first to try to confront [race and equity] and that’s to their credit,” noted English. “They’ve been trying to have some bold conversations — give ’em an A for effort.”

Mikki Morrisette — the mother of a fourth-grader at Whittier, a popular, integrated International Baccalaureate magnet — is one of several parents hoping to reach out to families at other southwest schools to start a dialogue on diversity. Over the last two years, Whittier’s strong academic program has drawn a number of white families crowded out of the less-diverse programs.

She said she has been copied on emails from southwest parents in recent weeks that cite fears ranging from new students bringing discipline problems with them to falling property values. Yet Whittier’s experience has been so positive it has spurred some families with children both there and at Lake Harriet to want to broaden the conversation, said Morrisette.

“A group of us want to talk more publicly about the benefits this brings our kids,” she said. “It’s been an amazing transformation at Whittier since it became IB. [The kids] are exposed to a variety of cultures other than our own. The biggest part is we talk about how the world is a global place.”

Beth Hawkins writes about schools, criminal justice and other topics. She can be reached at bhawkins [at] minnpost [dot] com.