Race and schools

Parents say it’s time for frank talk on tough issues

TANGLETOWN — Here’s the ultimate truth about race, racism and the Minneapolis Public Schools: It is a far larger and more important issue than can be covered in one, two-hour conversation.

Call what happened May 21 at Washburn High School a start, then. About 30 parents gathered in the evening to discuss race, Minneapolis, its school system and the raw emotions exposed by a major schools restructuring plan.

It was one of many conversations over the last few months — some in public led by the district or other groups, some in private between parents — that have tackled a key issue facing the district: how to provide a quality education to all students, despite racial or economic background.

That question has been on the minds of parents and Minneapolis school board members alike as they wrestle with a plan that would redraw school attendance boundaries and limit busing to cut down on transportation costs. The district at the same time aims to improve school diversity and equity across the board.

Those proposed changes have brought a concern shared by many parents to the fore: How do I balance what’s best for my child with what’s best for the district?

That question echoes in Southwest, where some of the best-performing schools in the district are located in majority white neighborhoods and have majority white student populations.

Whittier International Elementary School parent Mikki Morrissette said many parents who support diversity also worry the changes proposed by the district will hurt their schools. For some,  the situation has led to reflection on personal attitudes toward race.

“One of the things that makes it difficult for any of us is that, as white people coming generally from privileged backgrounds and progressive backgrounds, we tend to like to think that we say and do things correctly, and that we care deeply about everybody else around us,” Morrissette said. “But we do, of course, have to continually recognize that we don’t.”

With controversy, an opportunity

Morrissette was among a small group of Whittier parents who, about a year ago, started thinking of ways to start a conversation on race and diversity in Southwest.

Based on district reports, the racial and economic make-up of Whittier’s student population in many ways resembles the district as a whole. But the school also struggles with low scores on mandatory state tests.

Whittier parent Eric Hayward said, for him, classroom diversity had social benefits that outweighed the low test scores. Both Hayward and Morrissette said those test scores did not accurately reflect the academic achievement of individual students, either.

“For a while we’d been talking about how we needed to step out as voices for diverse classrooms,” Morrissette said. “We were looking for an opportunity to do so right about the time Burroughs happened.”

In April, Burroughs Community School Principal Tim Cadotte was suspended for two weeks after what parents described as a verbal confrontation with School Board Member Chris Stewart. Both men leveled charges of racism, parents said.

The confrontation reportedly was over a Burroughs Site Council statement in support of the schools Native Language Literacy program. The program brought in Spanish-speaking students from outside the neighborhood, but was being phased-out by the district because of transportation costs and high neighborhood demand for the school.

The district is currently considering other measures to diversify Southwest schools in majority white neighborhoods, including a voluntary intra-district integration program.

The controversy around Cadotte’s suspension, and the issues of race and racism tied up in the story, provided the opening the Whittier parents were looking for.

A first step

The parents who gathered at Washburn represented at least 10 school communities, most in Southwest. Most were white; almost all were women.

Conversations mostly centered on the district restructuring, and the anxiety it brought about in school communities. School Board Member Pam Costain, who was present for a portion of the meeting, said parents across the district are struggling with similar questions.

“Every parent’s first concern, understandably, is their own child,” Costain said. “… What our challenge is in Minneapolis Public Schools is to ask parents to hold that concern close to their heart and begin to be concerned for other children as well, especially those children who are not doing well in Minneapolis Public Schools right now.”

Whittier parent Shelly Damm said the conversation was an initial step that was meant to include mostly Southwest parents. Damm said she hoped the parent-led dialogues on race would expand to include other parents in other parts of the city.

Morrissette acknowledged there would be hurdles in getting some parents to have the kind of honest, uncomfortable conversations she and others think are necessary.

“The people that came last night are people who do want to talk about it,” she said. “What we eventually need to get to — which will take a long time — is to get to the people who don’t want to talk about it.”