A bus to better

Schools opened to high-poverty neighborhoods

FULTON — The school bus takes about 90 minutes to travel from Lake Harriet Community School to 7th-grader Quiara Williams’ home in the Jordan neighborhood on the city’s North Side.

That means Williams doesn’t arrive home until about 5:30 p.m.
most evenings, but that’s about the only complaint her mother, Gina Cacioppo, has about Lake Harriet. Otherwise, Cacioppo is thrilled her daughter is attending one of the best public schools in the city — thanks, in part, to Minneapolis Public Schools’ new Expanded Choice Option program.

While the district restricted busing this year in an effort to control costs, it left open additional options for families in eight North and two South neighborhoods with high-concentrations of poverty and struggling community schools.

“Where schools have been chronically low-performing, we didn’t want to eliminate all options to go to schools outside of the area,” said Jill Stever-Zeitlin, who heads the district’s Division of Accountability, Planning and Innovation.

The program is also a lure for families opting for charter schools or sending students to suburban districts through the Choice Is Yours program. The North Side in particular has been hard hit by the flight of families dissatisfied with Minneapolis Public Schools, an exodus that prompted Superintendent Bernadeia Johnson to recommend the closing of under-populated North High School in October.

Expanded Choice Option resembles Choice Is Yours, and was even called “Mini-Choice Is Yours” in its planning stages. Unlike Choice Is Yours, though, it keeps students, and the funding tied to them, in the district.

Cacioppo’s dissatisfaction with Robbinsdale Middle School, which her daughter attended through Choice Is Yours and where Williams struggled academically, led her to research other options online.

She was impressed by Lake Harriet’s high scores on state standardized tests and its academic supports for students, but told her daughter they’d have to look elsewhere if they couldn’t get a school bus. Then she learned about Expanded Choice Option.

“My daughter was ecstatic,
I was ecstatic,” Cacioppo said. “We were just completely happy that we got what we really wanted.”

Potential benefits

Research suggests Expanded Choice Option may benefit both the students in the program and their classmates at Southwest-area schools, said Myron Orfield, executive director of the University of Minnesota’s Institute on Race and Poverty, as well as the parent of students at Lake Harriet and Southwest.

“I think that neighborhood schools, where you have a middle-income neighborhood with a majority of middle-income people, they’re going to prosper,” Orfield said, describing, for the most part, the schools opened to Expanded Choice Option students. “But (schools in) segregated, poor neighborhoods — we’ve got 60 years of evidence that shows these are catastrophes.”

Yet that’s the situation in the Expanded Choice Option-eligible neighborhoods, both in North and South.

In both areas, the community schools are all considered “racially identifiable schools” by the district, meaning they enroll at least 91 percent students of color. As a whole the district is about 70 percent students of color.

Since a 2007 Supreme Court ruling strictly limited the role a student’s race can play in school assignments, the district has focused on integration by income. Race and income, though, remain “highly related” in Minneapolis, Stever-Zeitlin said.

The portion of students eligible for free and reduced-price lunch was at least 90 percent last year in every community school in both areas, the Minnesota Department of Education reported. Rates were lower at some nearby magnet schools, another choice for the students.

The situation is nearly reversed at Lake Harriet, although the comparison with Burroughs and Southwest is not as stark. Both the upper and lower campuses of Lake Harriet were about 86 percent white last school year, and no more than 7 percent of students were eligible for free and reduced-price lunch.

Orfield said students from low-income families who attended schools with a majority of middle- and upper-income students were more likely to graduate, attend college and “live and work in the middle-class world,” even if they made little progress on the standardized tests used to measure student growth.

“They’ll do a lot better than their counterparts in segregated schools; that’s the big difference,” he said.

Orfield cited other research showing “a large share” of students at integrated schools form “one or two” interracial friendships during their school years. That experience can have a life-long impact.

“(Students who) experience integrated schools feel more comfortable living and working in integrated neighborhoods and workplaces,” he said.

‘Small differences’

Courtney Cushing Kiernat, who has managed the district’s transition to a new transportation policy, said preliminary enrollment figures indicated just more than 140 students attended Southwest schools through Expanded Choice Option this year. Lake Harriet tripled and Southwest doubled the numbers of North Side students at their schools; Burroughs, linked through the program to the South neighborhoods, doubled its enrollment of students from those attendance areas.

Expanded Choice Option liaisons like Tarneka Harrison at Lake Harriet check-in regularly with students to see that they’re making friends and getting the academic support they need. Harrison is the main contact for parents, and has a small budget to cover costs associated with fieldtrips, transportation from after-school activities and cab fare for parents traveling across town to teacher conferences.

Cacioppo said her daughter was making friends at Lake Harriet and, with an eye on Southwest High School, working to make up ground in math and reading. Discouraged at Robbinsdale Middle School, Williams was “excited” about school again, Cacioppo said.  

“It seems to me that she’s really grabbed on to this experience,” she said. “And I think it’s bettering her, because I see small differences.”