DOWNTOWN WEST — More than a week after the start of the 2015–2016 school year brought most Minneapolis Public Schools buildings back to bustling life in August, the hallways at FAIR Downtown School were still relatively quiet, with no students in sight.
A post-Labor Day start remained on FAIR Downtown’s calendar even though management of the school was transferred this summer to Minneapolis from the West Metro Education Program. It was just one example of how the downtown site serving grades K–3 and 9–12 remains distinctive in its new home district.
Principal Kevin Bennett said, for him, the most noticeable change may be that his district headquarters is now two miles away in North Minneapolis instead of just down the hallway from his office. For students and their families, the message from Bennett and the district is one of consistency and stability for at least the next four to five years.
“I think we’re working to keep the experience for students the same,” Bennett, who is beginning his 12th year at the school, said. “I would hope if students say that something is different, it’s been that we’ve been able to access (Minneapolis district) programs and personalize their learning experience for the better.”
But there has been change, including significant turnover in FAIR Downtown’s K–3 teaching staff since last school year. And for some parents, the unusual path FAIR students once followed from downtown Minneapolis to a sister campus in Crystal and then back again is now looking too uncertain.
Meanwhile, officials with Robbinsdale Area Schools, the district now running FAIR Crystal, have publicly discussed a change in grade configuration at that 4–8 school as soon as 2017.
Staff turnover and that uncertainty where both factors Jim Ramlet, a former member of the two schools’ PTO, cited for enrolling his two boys at new schools outside of FAIR this fall. Ramlet, who lives in Robbinsdale, said his younger son would’ve been entering his senior of high school just as Minneapolis’ pledge of four years of stability expired.
“You don’t want to be looking for another high school when your son is starting his senior year,” he said.
WMEP’s changing role
The West Metro Education Program was founded in 1989 as a way for its 11 member districts, including Minneapolis, to collaboratively work on school integration issues. Although it no longer manages the two FAIR schools, WMEP plans to continue offering professional development for educators.
The school boards of the Minneapolis and Robbinsdale districts acted last winter to take over management of the FAIR Downtown and FAIR Crystal, respectively. At the time, Interim Superintendent Michael Goar said the school’s K–3 classrooms “obviously” would be phased-out at some point, but pledged to “protect the program” at FAIR Downtown and transfer some of the lessons learned there to the district at large.
The shift in the schools’ management was formalized in June during a special legislative session.
Minneapolis district leaders plan to initiate a community engagement process around the future of FAIR Downtown this year, while at the same time continuing conversations with Robbinsdale about the future of the Crystal campus, Michael Thomas, chief of schools for the Minneapolis district, wrote in an email. For now, the schools continue to operate as an inter-district integration program, enrolling students from all 11 of the member districts.
Bennett, who this summer was one in a group of American educators invited on a five-city tour of China, said he’s interested in pursuing community partnership school status for FAIR Downtown. The designation gives Minneapolis schools greater freedom in setting their own budgets, staffing rules and curricula — even the lengths of the school day and school year — as long as they can show the changes are boosting student learning.
Bennett said the school already offers students unique learning opportunities through a “robust network of partners,” including downtown businesses like Target and arts institutions like the Hennepin Theater Trust. Some FAIR Downtown students take advantage of the campus’ proximity to Minneapolis Community and Technical College to complete college-level coursework.
Bennet said those partnerships, and the 500-student school’s relatively intimate size, continue to draw families. He estimated about half of the school’s students live in Minneapolis.
In 2014, the FAIR Downtown graduated more than 88 percent of its relatively small senior class, according to the latest figures available from the Minnesota Department of Education. The graduation rate for Minneapolis Public Schools that year was just less than 59 percent.
Not a seamless transition
Richard Spratt, the parent of both a current FAIR Downtown sophomore and a graduate of the school, mentioned that graduation rate when asked about the school. Spratt described the small campus as “a very caring community,” but said he wonders about the direction the school will go in now that it’s a part of the Minneapolis district.
“In a large system like that you lose control of a lot of things, and sometimes systems make decisions that have a negative impact on programs,” he said.
Kari D’Averill, whose son, Levi, is a grade 2 student at FAIR Downtown, said the transition has not been as “seamless” as the Minneapolis district promised. By D’Averill’s count, there was only one teacher on the school’s K–3 staff this fall who’d been there the previous school year.
Drawn to FAIR in large part by the relatively small size, D’Averill said she’d already experienced additional layers of district bureaucracy since the transition to Minneapolis. But as long as the leadership and office staff at FAIR remains in place, she added, “I still have great hope that the FAIR that was will emerge.”
“We’re committed to seeing it through until it doesn’t work,” she said.