A few bright spots, and many challenges, for MPS
By Dylan Thomas
With high school graduation rates up and enrollment stronger than it has been in years, Minneapolis Public Schools Superintendent Bill Green had a few successes to tout Thursday morning in his annual State of the Schools address.
But Green also acknowledged continuing and significant challenges facing the district — especially its students of color, who lag behind their white peers in many measures of achievement. Raising student achievement, he said, would require community support, not least in the form of a “yes” vote on the district’s $60 million referendum this November.
“Join us in reaching higher,” Green asked the community members who joined district staff in Pohlad Hall at the Minneapolis Public Library.
Green was preceded on stage by two of the district’s high school students.
Southwest senior Palbasha Siddique sang a live version of “Praan,” the soundtrack to an online video that created an Internet craze this summer. Citywide Student Government President Arthur Taylor, a South senior, reviewed the superintendent’s long list of post-secondary degrees and achievements, concluding that when Green repeats the district’s new motto — “Every child, college ready” — “I guess he knows what that means.”
“Every child, college ready” is a phrase that has gotten a lot of use since the district launched its five-year strategic plan this spring.
Green said the goals of the plan — which include raising student achievement across the board and closing the student performance gaps linked to race and income — were “ambitious, but real.”
He acknowledged that it was still too early to judge the impact of the strategic plan on a district that has struggled with achievement gaps and declining enrollment. But this fall’s enrollment numbers, the highest in six years, were a positive sign, he said.
Green reviewed five of the key indicators used by district officials to measure progress on strategic plan goals, including: kindergarten readiness; 3rd-grade reading proficiency; 8th-grade math proficiency; four-year graduation rates; and the percentage of students deemed college-ready.
On many of those indicators, white students far outperformed students in other demographic groups, highlighting disparities in the district.
He said only 59 percent of kindergarteners met benchmarks for basic math and literacy understanding in the fall of 2007. The numbers were lowest for Hispanic children, of whom only 24 percent met kindergarten benchmarks.
“High-quality preschool experiences will close the gap,” Green said.
Green said reading by the 3rd grade was an “important milestone” for all students. But proficiency rates took a 6-percent dip last year, down to 53 percent of students in 2007–2008 from 59 percent in 2006-2007.
Eighth-graders managed a slight improvement in math proficiency last school year, while most of the state declined. The district needed to improve faster, Green said, adding that high-level math skills were essential in today’s job market.
He compared the 73-percent math proficiency rate of the district’s white students to the 9-percent proficiency rate of American Indian students, calling it “unacceptable.”
After that, Green seemed eager to share the good news that graduation rates jumped 6 percentage points last spring when compared to the previous year. In the past four years, graduation rates increased 20 percent, he added.
“All students of color are seeing improvements, with white students holding steady,” he noted.
Still, only 30 percent 2008 graduates were deemed college-ready by the district, which tracks 10th-graders’ performance on the PLAN test, a precursor to the ACT college entrance exam.
Other ongoing district reforms target staff, not students, including a new push for accountability among administrators, principals and teachers. Holding them to higher standards of performance would lead to success for the district, Green said.
He also mentioned the African American Covenant, an agreement that aims to improve the district’s relationship with the black community. Both sides also agreed to work together on closing the achievement gap.
Green noted the covenant followed a similar agreement with the American Indian community and garnered the district national attention for its willingness to confront race issues.
“We’ve opened up and encouraged a new dialogue about race and equality,” he said.
Still, there was no denying the district had a long way to go in closing the achievement gap. Green said community support for the district’s referendum request was essential to achieving that goal.
“If the referendum fails we will need to cut $30 million from a budget that is already stretched too thin,” he warned.