More details to come by spring
Nearly seven months in the making, a list of nine strategic recommendations meant to guide Minneapolis Public Schools (MPS) for the next few years was approved unanimously Dec. 11 by the Board of Education.
The reforms aim to narrow the achievement gap for minority students, increase performance across the district and prepare students for higher education.
Highlights of the recommendations include a call to "restructure" schools performing in the bottom 25 percent of the district. Another recommendation — added late in the process — urged the district to confront institutional racism head-on.
The work didn’t end with one meeting. Over the next few months, district administrators are expected to return to the board with a roadmap for achieving the long-term strategic plan.
Minnesota Education Commissioner Alice Seagren said she and Gov. Tim Pawlenty would support the district’s reform efforts.
"These recommendations are vital to the future success of the Minneapolis school district," Seagren said.
After Seagren had left the meeting, Board Member Peggy Flanagan welcomed their support but asked the officials to "put their money where their mouth is."
"Unless we fully fund public education in the state of Minnesota, these goals will not be achievable," Flanagan said to applause from the standing-room-only audience at district headquarters.
District officials set several measures for success. By 2012, they aim to have 80 percent of MPS students score proficient on state standardized math and reading tests and the same percentage reach "threshold score" on college entrance exams like the ACT. They also intend to narrow the achievement gap by 75 percent in that time.
Still, the district has received some criticism for setting too few specific goals and measures in the strategic plan. After the list was delivered in November by consulting firm McKinsey & Company, district administrators changed the phrasing of some recommendations.
Board Member Chris Stewart said the board deserved criticism that it "watered down" the strategic plan.
"These [recommendations] are so general and so foggy that it allows us to do anything next year," Stewart said.
Minneapolis Federation of Teachers President Robert Panning-Miller said that wasn’t necessarily a bad thing. Speaking after the meeting, Panning-Miller said the broad proposals left room for the teachers union and the district to develop specific strategies together.
"With the exception of maybe two lines in that page that was adopted, there was nothing we would object to," he said.
Panning-Miller said teachers were anxious to see just what the board meant when it adopted the proposal to restructure the lowest-performing schools.
Also of concern to the union was the district’s push for changes in the teachers contract, specifically the right for principals to "interview-and-select" teachers. Panning-Miller said the union would not support that change current hiring practices, which give preference to seniority.
Lynnell Mickelsen, a Southwest-area parent who spoke at the Board meeting, said later that the district could not deliver on the "bold" changes it promised without a new teachers’ contract.
"We may have to go, God forbid, to a teachers strike to get it," Mickelsen said.
Mickelsen said the district was "beyond incremental change," especially if it aimed to reduce the achievement gap between white and minority students.
"If white boys were failing at the rate of African American boys, there would be an uproar," she said.
Board Member T. Williams said the real test of the district’s resolve to change would be in implementation of the plan. Williams asked district administration to set a clear path for achieving the goals and benchmarks to determine success.
In a time of scant resources, he added, the district should prioritize the goals.
"We don’t have the capacity to move forward with all of this," he said.
Board Member Sharon Henry-Blythe echoed those sentiments. Still, Henry-Blythe said, the recommendations constituted the strongest statement made by the board in her nearly seven years of service.
"We’ve put a stake in the ground," she said. "We’ve drawn the line."