Despite championing diversity, some Windom School parents leave

A common complaint: too many English language learners; however, officials and remaining parents say the school is on the rise

Lyn Mitchell of Tangletown pulled her two kids out of Windom Open School this year and put them in Lake Harriet Community Schools. The move has left her wrestling over how to balance her own values with her child's educational needs.

"I feel like I'm participating in the very white flight that I'm so critical of," said Mitchell, the mother of a third-grader and a sixth-grader. "It's really painful. Frankly, other people left long ago for all the reasons I'm saying now."

Mitchell's is one of 12 white, middle-class families to opt out of 400-student Windom this year. They weren't just any dozen; many were the school's parent leaders, volunteering weekly, if not daily, at the school. Mitchell, a frequent in-class volunteer, was a co-creator of "Love Makes A Family," a reading program to educate children about diverse families.

Parents who left said their decision surprised even themselves. Initially drawn by Windom's diversity, four of five departing families interviewed said the school now had so many students needing special attention that it detracted from their children's education.

At Windom, 60 percent of students live in poverty and 38 percent are learning English, according to 2002 school district statistics. By comparison, between the two campuses, Lake Harriet's poverty level is about 30 percent with 15 percent learning English.

Dan Berg of Lynnhurst was on Windom's site-based leadership team. His two girls now attend Lake Harriet.

Berg said the diversity was one of the main reasons he wanted his kids at Windom.

"A lot of people think that the middle-class folks went to Windom because they couldn't get into Barton," said Berg, referring to another Southwest school that operates with the "Open" educational philosophy. "But the folks that we know chose Windom because it was the open school with diversity."

Berg, Mitchell and others say Windom is not the school they chose roughly eight years ago. They say most new students are English language learners, and despite the school's overall 38 percent figure, a majority of kids in lower grades are non-English speakers.

"I think there's a tipping point and it's darn hard as parents to influence the real cultural interplay in a middle-school reality," Berg said. "But I think the district is falling so far out of compliance with desegregation and just plain justice."

Mitchell said her second-grader was in a classroom with one or two other native English-speaking students.

"She is above grade level in her skills and knowledge," Mitchell said. "For her to be able to learn with others at her level -- I couldn't see it happening for six more years."

Some parents who left believed their children's academics were suffering, but principal Jean Neuman said that didn't match reality. "Our assessment scores have shown that the children have been successful here no matter what the ethnicity," Neuman said. "You're talking about a dozen families out of 400. I know for a fact that three are leaving because their other friend left, and a couple others are leaving because of the hour-long bus ride."

One parent, Jim Kiman, said his primary reason for leaving was an hour-long Windom bus ride, compared to ten minutes to Lake Harriet. He said he had no problems with his child's education at Windom.

Middle-class parents who are staying on defend the school's educational quality.

"You know, with every problem they cite, I can find something that will change this year to help the problem," said Kyle Samejima an eight-year Windom parent and Windom neighborhood resident. "I don't feel like I'm compromising my children's education; they are getting an excellent education. They are also learning to be in a classroom with Spanish-speaking kids and Hmong-speaking kids and black kids and white kids and all kinds of people," Samejima said.

A school in flux

Mitchell said she believed Windom's white flight began immediately after the district began its push towards community schools in the mid-1990s.

"Windom was not as much of a choice for middle-class families as people chose to go to school in their neighborhood," she said. "That started a huge population shift and left Windom the home school for new kids to the district and kids who were being moved from other schools for behavior problems."

Berg said half of the students in his daughter's second- and third-grade class were learning English and one-third were below grade level: "In terms of her literacy, she was a good helper. That's fine up to a point, but she needs to be pushed and challenged more than depended upon."

Minneapolis Public Schools Supt. Carol Johnson met with a group of Windom parents last spring to talk about changes at the school. That's when Berg said he realized Windom would never again be what he thought it should be, and it was time to switch.

"It became apparent that there was no magic bullet," Berg said. "I think we knew it, but we needed to hear it from her. We were only talking incremental efforts to mediate the situation."

Johnson acknowledges that Windom needed more to support the influx of Spanish-speaking students.

The district hasn't completely figured out how to balance Minneapolis school newcomers with magnet programs, she said. One reason is they never know how many newcomers are coming; for example, Johnson said, the federal government will notify school districts when students from other countries arrive -- but not when those immigrants resettle in another U.S. city.

Said Johnson, "We have to place kids quickly -- it's the middle of the year. There is very little time to think about how we might add new bus routes. We haven't budgeted for that, so we continue to place where we already have buses and where we already have existing staff and programs put in place."

Neuman, Windom's principal for the last three years, said compared to the rest of the district, Windom did not receive more than its share of new students. However, she added that it might appear that way in Southwest because Windom was the only area magnet school that had spaces to take new students. Barton, for example, has been full, she said.

The school has had more students in poverty, but therefore received more aid from the school district, Neuman said. This year it allowed Windom to hire six new staff: two half-time parent liaisons and three half-time bilingual aides and a full-time gifted-and-talented teacher, she said.

Lessons on a field trip

Kim Lund of Lynnhurst has a sixth-grader and a second-grader at Windom and says she understands why some parents are leaving. She is staying, and will take on a bigger leadership role this year.

"What are you saying when it's a problem that there are only a couple Anglo kids in the classroom?" she said. "What's the problem with that? One of the moms asked how her daughter is going to find friends if there are only one or two Anglo kids in the class. The parents have more fears about that than the kids do."

As some parents wrestled with leaving Windom last year, Lund and another Windom parent, Gisela Cano de Valdez of the Hale neighborhood, were working on their kids' fifth-grade school trip to Lanesboro, Minn.

Valdez, a teacher, came to Minneapolis a year ago after emigrating from Mexico. She came to Minneapolis so her eighth-grade child could enroll in a public school special-needs program. But she's become most involved with her sixth-grade daughter's Windom education because of the active parent group.

"A lot of parents are taking their kids out and sometimes they ask me, 'Are you taking Daniela?'" she said. "First, I was worried but I was involved too much with the school. I never think to leave because I think there is too much things to do. And I really see that Daniela is learning. That's the thing, no?"

The parents planning the Lanesboro trip agreed that the class would go only if they raised the funds for the whole class, Lund said. The organizers hadn't heard from 15 of the Latino parents, so they asked the school's bilingual staff member to call the parents.

"She told us that the Latino parents didn't even know there was a trip," Lund said. "Their children didn't even give them the fliers because they assumed they couldn't go."

Valdez is one of the few bilingual parents, and this year she was hired by the school as a parent liaison and bilingual aide. Last year's cooperation invigorated her, she said.

She convinced one mother -- a reluctant volunteer because she didn't speak English -- to come on the field trip, Valdez said.

"And at the end she was doing things on her own, talking to parents and children," Valdez said. "She was involved and she was so happy. So maybe that's what we need to do. Say, maybe you don't speak great English, but with a few words, you can start."

From last year's trip, Lund envisioned that this year's involved parents could include more Latino families than in the past, when Anglo families dominated.

"It's more of looking at what your fears are and what your hopes are for the school, and then really deciding what the most important activities are," she said. "But I think you have to start over and get your organizing groups reflecting the population of the school and then decide what you are going to do. Not do what you've always done and wonder why no one else is showing up."

This school year, the parents at Windom and Lake Harriet are moving forward; they say that the pain is starting to heal. "I mean it's almost like a divorce, you've had this community, you've had this relationship and now they're deciding that 'this isn't ok. I have to go,'" said Samejima. "I think in the hurt, you almost want to make it black and white. But there is gray area everywhere."

Berg said his family has been startled by how white Lake Harriet's student body is compared to Windom. "We're joking with all of the active Lake Harriet parents, we are just going to kick back. Lake Harriet doesn't need us, doesn't need our money…well, my money is still going to Windom."