The Minneapolis school district plans to do away with admission requirements that limit entry into some small learning communities, the focused educational programs inside each high school.
All “selection criteria” will be eliminated by fall 2008 under a plan being developed by district staff. Federal regulators ordered the change to address racial disparities among small learning communities, or the school district would lose about $1 million per year in federal grants.
As the plan is fleshed out, district parents are left wondering what the changes will mean for their children, especially the seventh graders who will enter high school in 2008.
“As parents, we all have more questions than the district has answers at this point,” said Jean Rokke, the parent of a Field Community School seventh grader.
The preliminary strategy for placing students in small learning communities without the help of selection criteria is two-fold: first, the most sought-after programs would be expanded to more schools; and second, the geographic attendance area restrictions that determine which programs high school-bound students apply to might be changed.
Still, the anxiety was apparent at the Area C Parent Advisory Council meeting in February, when Area C Superintendent Craig Vana explained some of the changes to a group of Southwest parents gathered in the Lyndale Community School gymnasium. Hands shot up when Vana uttered the words: “We are doing away with all selection criteria.”
One parent asked if the absence of selection criteria would leave middle school students without motivation to earn top marks in their classes. Vana said schools would start talking to students about college readiness and the importance of a postsecondary education earlier, beginning in the sixth grade.
Another parent asked how seats will be allotted for the most popular and selective programs, like International Baccalaureate (IB) at Southwest High School. Expansion of those small learning communities, Vana responded, is an essential part of the plan.
If you bring International Baccalaureate to my child's school, a parent then asked, how will we afford it?
A high school design team made up of both parents and district staff was still working on those answers in February.
“All the questions you're asking, they're asking,” Vana told the audience.
He said the team must recommend a specific plan to the School Board by June. That will allow time for the new small learning community guidelines to be printed in the school choice guides distributed to eighth graders in the fall.
That certain small learning communities have selection criteria at all is an artifact from the days when Minneapolis high schools each operated one or two magnet programs in addition to a comprehensive program. Magnets had admission criteria, while comprehensive programs were open to all students.
Michael Bradley, the district coordinator of federal small learning community grants, said the district tried with magnets in the 1980s to achieve the same goals it has for small learning communities today: to create smaller, personalized learning environments that will improve student achievement.
But Bradley said the magnets created essentially a “two-tiered” system, in which magnet students tended to perform better than their counterparts in the comprehensive programs. When the district moved to a small learning community system in the fall of 2002, it hoped to give every student the benefit of the magnets' personalized programs.
Now, every ninth grader joins one of three or four small learning communities offered at each high school, instead of choosing between a magnet or a comprehensive program.
He said some of the former magnet programs, like International Baccalaureate at Southwest, kept their entrance criteria when they became small learning communities. The former comprehensive programs, on the other hand, went on without entrance criteria.
And disparities between the two types of programs persisted.
Bradley said about 50 percent of all incoming ninth graders apply to the small learning communities at South and Southwest high schools, which are seen by many as the best in the district.
“I'm not saying that all (high school) sites don't have rigorous programming,” he said. “But we are seeing the perception with many in the community suggests that South and Southwest are perceived as more rigorous.”
Those accepted to the programs are “disproportionately white,” he said.
The Minneapolis district is in the second year of a five-year, $5 million federal grant supporting small learning communities. Without addressing the disparities in small learning communities, it stands to lose both the grant and additional dollars from the McKnight Foundation worth about $800,000 per year, Bradley said.
Rokke, the Field parent, said she and many others would welcome the changes and the opportunity they promise.
“My desire would be whoever wants to be in that program gets that program,” she said. “I don't know how realistic that is.”
IB in demand
As the school district moves to eliminate selection criteria for its small learning communities, one of those programs has been placed in the spotlight: International Baccalaureate (IB) at Southwest High School.
For good reason, too. It is currently one of the most-selective programs in the Minneapolis high school system, and its 200 seats fill up quickly every year.
“That's the one program that had to turn away significant numbers of students,” said Michael Bradley, the district's federal small learning community grant coordinator.
Those students who earn a spot - like 2000 Southwest graduate Kirsten Rokke - engage a highly rigorous curriculum in place at 1,963 schools in 124 countries. Graduates often earn a year's worth of college credit at schools like the University of Minnesota.
Her mother, Jean Rokke, said she appreciated IB's rigor, the breadth of topics and its methodology, particularly “the deep, critical thinking” it requires of students.
Southwest IB Coordinator Dick Schwartz said incoming students are currently evaluated based on their middle school grades, standardized test scores and attendance records. Students must submit two writing samples, as well.
When asked if eliminating those hurdles would change the program, Schwartz replied: “I don't think it's going to make a damn bit of difference.”
He said the International Baccalaureate Organization, which accredits schools like Southwest, ensures all programs retain high standards. Now, even those who didn't earn the highest marks in middle school will have a chance to meet those standards, he argued.
What is unknown, he said, is how the district will select bodies for those limited seats without selection criteria as a tool.
Area C Superintendent Craig Vana said one solution is to expand IB to other schools in the district. But the district also faces a marketing challenge in demonstrating to parents that other small learning communities have the same benefits as IB.
“A lot of times the perception is IB is the only rigorous program, and that isn't correct,” Vana said.