Strategic recommendations unveiled

Board votes on long-term plan in December

Six months after the district embarked on a long-term strategic planning process, the Minneapolis School Board received nine recommendations Nov. 6 that could shape reform in the district for years to come.

The recommendations were framed by one overarching goal: to prepare every Minneapolis student for college.

Board of Education Chair Pam Costain said that goal was "tough to hear" because the district has such a long way to go in achieving it. Still, success would "transform this city," Costain said.

The 15-member Strategic Advisory Group — made up of civic and business leaders, teachers and principals — recommended the district push for higher rigor at all grade levels, provide greater support to teachers, free principals from some management duties in order for them to spend more time on instruction, and strengthen its partnership with families.

It asked for greater accountability, including "school scorecards" that rate performance.

It proposed an Office of New Schools that would "restart" schools performing in the bottom 25 percent with new leadership or new learning models. Some schools could be turned over to charters or other outside organizations.

The group recommended aggressive moves to stabilize finances in the district, which now anticipates a $100 million shortfall in coming years. It also asked the district to form stronger partnerships with other schools and build community support around improving education for all students.

"Bold" was the buzzword throughout the strategic planning process. The district undertook the effort with the aim of making bold changes that would address several key concerns, including the achievement gap for students of color, low scores on state standardized tests, declining enrollment and a growing budget deficit.

But some felt the recommendations didn’t go far enough.

"[The recommendations] are, in many cases, some things that the district should have been doing all along," said Robert Panning-Miller, president of the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers. "To describe something as ‘bold’ that we should have been doing is odd, to say the least."

Board Member Tom Madden acknowledged that some recommendations simply reaffirm existing district goals.

"The majority of this isn’t rocket science, but it’s not being done," Madden said.

Where the recommendations departed from business as usual, School Board members sometimes met them with trepidation.

For instance, Board Member Lydia Lee expressed reservations about the proposed school scorecards. Lee said similar public reporting systems sometimes paint an unfair picture of schools.

Costain questioned the aggressive timeline set by the Strategic Advisory Group.

It set a goal for 80 percent of students to score proficient or higher on state standardized tests in five years, when less than half do today.

Also in 2012, it proposes for 80 percent of students to reach "threshold scores" on college entrance exams like the ACT. And it aims to reduce the racial achievement gap by at least 75 percent in the same time period.

Costain said Boston Public Schools had seen success with similar reform efforts, but over the course of a decade.

"I don’t want to raise expectations that we can’t meet," she said.

The Minneapolis School Board will vote Dec. 11 to accept all, some or none of the recommendations.

Looming over their decision is the district’s gloomy financial picture. What they can accomplish, Costain said, depends on what the district can afford.

"I don’t believe we’re there yet on the financial picture," she said. "I don’t see the evidence that we can overcome our deficit in the thinking that’s been done so far. And I don’t want to embark on more things that cost a lot of money until I’m sure we’ve got control of our finances."