It was like a School Board candidate forum, but in reverse.
Instead of election-season campaign pledges, the roughly 50 people who turned up Thursday evening at Pepito’s Parkway Theater came to hear reflections on terms past from three former School Board members: Alberto Monserrate, Richard Mammen and Mohamud Noor. Monserrate and Mammen won seats in 2010 and Noor was appointed to fill a vacancy in 2013, but all three declined to run for re-election and left the board in January.
Moderators Arthur Himmelman and former Mayor Sharon Sayles Belton led what was the first discussion in the Conversations at the Crossroads series sponsored by non-profit community organization Change Inc. (co-founded by Mammen) and public relations firm NewPublica (where Monserrate is CEO). Sayles Belton opened with what she jokingly referred to as the “easiest question” of the night, asking all three former board members to imagine what the future holds in store for the district.
Mammen said the district had a “strong” and “school-centric” strategy outlined in its Acceleration 2020 plan, which was approved by the School Board in September when he was chair. It should shift more decision-making authority and resources to schools from the central office and improve community engagement, he continued, but then added caveat: “That’s a very optimistic view of the future, because it’s conditional on if the district follows the plan.”
Monserrate said his hope for the district was “a future in which the individual needs of Minneapolis kids are addressed” and key decisions are made at the school level. But Monserrate also gave the district only 50-50 odds of actually achieving that goal, noting that while district schools meet the needs of some students very well, that’s not the experience for the majority.
Noor said he was reminded of a scene from the 2004 movie “Hotel Rwanda,” when the hero, Paul Rusesabagina (played by Don Cheadle), a hotel manager caught in the midst of an ethnic violence and seeing no hope of rescue, decides: “We can only save ourselves.”
“My friends, the district is struggling, and I’m not going to lie to you,” Noor said.
He, too, expressed support for Acceleration 2020, but Noor also called on community members to get involved and help “change the culture” of the district.
“You laid the gauntlet down,” Sayles-Belton responded. “Love it.”
But Noor wasn’t done. He said the “elephant in the room” was the district’s culture of white privilege, one that perpetuates institutional racism. He noted the particularly poor results for English language learner (ELL) students at Wellstone International High School, where less than 18 percent of students graduated in four years as of 2013–2014, according to the Minnesota Department of Education.
Noor said immigrants and students of color are sometimes “discouraged” by the system, and teachers don’t always feel free to speak out. Monserrate would later add that ELL teachers are sometimes “bullied” by other staff.
Throughout the evening, both Noor, who was born in Somalia, and Monserrate, who grew up in Puerto Rico, returned to the issues facing ELL students. Monserrate said a second language gives them a “natural advantage” in the labor market, but added the district often treats both their families and teachers poorly.
“We still make families feel incredibly uncomfortable,” Monserrate said. “We still make a lot of plans that never get implemented.”
Noor said the district must be more flexible to help immigrants succeed, testing year-round school models that focus on language acquisition. He said Somali families are leaving for charter schools that take a more personal, hands-on approach, including door-to-door recruitment drives.
“Almost 40 percent of (the city’s) Somali students don’t go to Minneapolis Public Schools,” he said.
Asked about the major challenges facing the district, all three agreed that the task for Interim Superintendent Michael Goar and the current School Board is living up to the high expectations set by the strategic plan.
But Sayles Belton challenged them: If there’s work left to do, then why did you leave? Both Mammen and Monserrate said they never planed to serve more than one term, and Noor left for an unsuccessful attempt to wrest the House District 60B seat from Rep. Phyllis Kahn, a fellow DFLer.
Turning to Mammen, Sayles Belton reminded him he once pledged at a School Board meeting to “race anyone in the room to the end of the achievement gap.”
“The reality is, we’ve made some progress but far too little,” Mammen responded. “… We haven’t done as much as a city to improve life for our kids.”
Mammen had earlier predicted the shift to a new school funding scheme known as student-based allocations would be controversial, especially in Southwest Minneapolis, where relatively low rates of poverty and student mobility means schools will draw fewer financial resources compared to those with greater needs. But he said ultimately it should help to decrease disparities across the district.
“Let (the funding) follow the students, and that will create equity,” he said.