District considers ‘revolutionary’ busing plan

Plus: Grad rates rise fastest at Washburn; and a district parent launches a new fundraising tool

The district is exploring a circulator busing system that would operate more like a city bus. Credit: File photo

What if Minneapolis Public Schools ran its transportation system more like MetroTransit, with school buses circulating throughout city rather than driving school-specific routes?

That’s just what district leaders are pondering as they consider options for squeezing more schools’ start times into the 8 a.m.–8:30 a.m. window, which a recent survey found families overwhelmingly prefer. It’s a change the district has termed “revolutionary,” but it won’t be implemented until fall 2016 at the earliest.

A revolution is what it will take if the district aims to shrink the nearly three-hour difference between the earliest morning bell and the latest, Meredith Fox, executive director for planning and accountability, said.

“All of the wiggle room in our (transportation) system is gone,” Fox said.

She said a team of national consultants who examined the district’s current busing scheme — one that requires tiered bell times across the district — determined it’s operating at near peak efficiency. There are few options to increase flexibility other than adding more buses and drivers “which we just don’t have and don’t want to do because we’re already spending more than $30 million a year on transportation,” Fox said.

Instead, the district is investigating a system of six circulator routes and — “this is a big question mark,” Fox added — potentially even transfer points where students would hop off one school bus and onto another. To make it work, the district would need some type of student-tracking system, maybe a bus card students to swipe when they board, she said.

“That’s a big project unto itself,” she continued, which is part of the reason the district put off any changes to elementary and K–8 start times for at least one more school year. Some high schools and middle schools may yet see bell-time adjustments next fall, but those won’t require a major transportation system overhaul.

Fox said that overhaul would have major implications not just for families but also day-care providers and after-school programs across the city, so the district plans to move forward cautiously and in cooperation with parents.

“We want to move in this direction and we think it has great promise for the district,” she said.

To read more about the results of the bell-time survey, go to mpls.k12.mn.us/start-times.


Graduation rates rose in 2014

With Washburn High School leading the way, graduation rates increased in all seven of the city’s traditional public high schools last year.

An annual report on statewide graduation rates released Feb. 24 by the Minnesota Department of Education showed Minneapolis Public Schools’ four-year graduation rate rose nearly 5 percent, to about 59 percent in 2014 from about 54 percent the previous year. Washburn experienced the biggest jump, with 79 percent of students graduating on time in 2014, an increase of more than 15 percent over the previous year.

Linda Conley, who last year served as Washburn’s interim principal, credited a combination of programs that provided extra support to students behind on credits, including after-school tutoring, end-of-semester “cocoa and cram” sessions and opportunities for credit recovery during the school day. Most important was the collaboration between administrators, teachers and counselors, Conley said.

“I’d say the biggest thing was that as a school community we were beginning to take a good look at our (student) data, which helps us focus our direction,” she said.

Teacher on special assignment Michelle Terpening said a $15,000 grant from the Shultz Family Foundation allowed Washburn to add tutoring sessions this year. About 80 students show up twice a week after school and another 50 to 60 to two morning sessions, Terpening said.

The statewide graduation rate of about 81 percent in 2014 was a slight improvement from 2013, when about 80 percent of high school seniors graduated in four years. The Education Department aims to reach a 90-percent graduation rate by 2020.

In Minneapolis, Patrick Henry High School boasts the highest four-year graduation rate (86 percent in 2014), followed by Southwest (85 percent), Washburn, South (73 percent), Edison (62 percent), Roosevelt (58 percent) and North (42 percent).


Fundraising through an “online garage sale”

Minneapolis Public Schools parent Erin Sjoquist in February launched Exchange4Good.com, an “online garage sale” to raise money for schools.

The aim is to find new homes for gently used toys, books, electronics and other items while giving schools a new format for fundraising. The site operates like a consignment service, and when donated goods sell the profit goes to the school of the buyer’s choice.

“It’s really around reusing, recycling and raising money,” Sjoquist said.

She said Exchange4Good takes a 17-percent fee off the sale price to cover advertising and processing costs, but the other 83 percent goes to the school. Donations to the site are tax-deductible.

Sjoquist is testing the site at a handful of schools in Southwest Minneapolis, but may expand the service if she gets a positive response.