Parents want foundation to make changes

Group says Southwest Foundation disproportionately benefits ‘whitest and wealthiest’ students

Southwest High School Minneapolis
Southwest High School Minneapolis

A group of parents focused on combating systemic inequities are demanding that the Southwest High School Foundation change its approach to raising and distributing funds.

The group, called White on White, said the foundation should raise money at less exclusive venues and that its all-white board needs a more diverse membership. The parents also said the foundation should focus grants on students who have been historically underserved and make the application process easier to understand for people from marginalized communities.

“The decisions they make need to have an equity lens,” parent Laura Balfour said. “If it’s not equitable, then they shouldn’t be doing it.”

The group’s demands came four months after the foundation received a $250,000 donation from 1969 Southwest graduate Betsee Parker, who earmarked half the funds for “teacher innovation and development.” Her gift wasn’t intended for the foundation’s yearly grantmaking activities, according to board president Adam Barrett, who graduated from Southwest in 2000.

Parker was traveling abroad this spring (she bought a Scottish castle in February) and was unavailable for an interview, Barrett said. He said she wanted Southwest’s teachers to use the “innovation” funding as they saw fit, adding that a teacher committee has been discussing how best to spend it.

White on White parents said they want some of that money to go toward teacher-equity training.

“Real classroom innovation would be white teachers kind of coming to terms with their racism,” parent June Thiemann said.

White on White’s demands came as the foundation solicited 2019-20 grant applications from Southwest staff and student organizations. The applications were due April 22.

Southwest High School has approximately 1,900 students, including about 850 students of color, and draws about 80% of its population from 17 neighborhoods in the southwest quadrant of the city. That “attendance zone” includes whiter and wealthier neighborhoods like Linden Hills and Fulton and less affluent ones such as Stevens Square and Whittier, according to Minneapolis Public Schools.

Over 90% of the school’s licensed staff was white in 2018, according to the Minnesota Department of Education.

The Southwest Foundation, a nonprofit led by alumni, parents and staff, is one of a handful of independent organizations that fundraises to support programs and activities at the school.

Each spring, the organization solicits grant requests from Southwest teachers and student organizations, asking them to explain how they would use the funds and whether they would help “historically underserved” students. Its board then reviews the applications and decides which grants to fund and at what level, in conjunction with school administrators. (The foundation also acts as a holding agent for scholarships for outgoing seniors.)

Barrett said the foundation has helped support dozens of student organizations, which help students stay connected and welcomed at the school. He said the foundation funds programs that are “essential” to Southwest’s success.

White on White parent Shelly Damm, who has a freshman at Southwest, said she thinks the foundation has an important function at the school but that its work needs to have a focus on equity. She and other White on White parents said students of color don’t always understand how to apply for the grants.

“There’s a lot of students that could use grants that don’t get them,” said parent Mary Breen, whose youngest child graduates from Southwest this year.

Barrett disputed the charge that the foundation doesn’t equitably distribute grants. He said the board almost always prioritizes underrepresented students when disseminating funds.

He and another foundation board member said the parent group was incorrect this spring when it claimed that almost all grants go to the “whitest and wealthiest” students.

“We certainly don’t stop and say, ‘Oh, what’s the demographics here?’” board member Una Edwardson said of the grant process.

Edwardson, the parent of one current Southwest student and two graduates, said the foundation’s board tends to approve requests from counselors who ask for funds for their most vulnerable and underserved kids. She said the idea of “honing in” on kids in need is one of the foundation’s “moral compasses” when deciding on grants.

This school year, the foundation provided Southwest staff and student organizations with nearly $50,000 in grants. About 20% of the funds went to Southwest’s counseling department for ACT prep for all freshmen, sophomores and juniors, and about 14% went to the advanced academic department for “testing.” Other funds went to student clubs, academic programs, field trips and an after-school tutoring program, among other efforts.

It’s a list Thiemann said appears to disproportionately benefit certain students. The group said the school is focused on the students and families who come from the whiter, wealthier lakes-area neighborhoods, at the expense of students from other Southwest Minneapolis neighborhoods.

Students who come from “disparate” feeder schools or who aren’t socially networked in the same way are “constantly othered by those who experience the privileged norms of Linden Hills,” said parent Deb Girdwood, who lives in Whittier.

White on White parents also took issue with the foundation’s fundraiser at The Minikahda Club, saying such a venue excludes people who don’t think of themselves as part of the white, privileged community.

Outgoing Southwest principal Michael Favor, who is African-American, said he appreciates the work of the foundation and of the White on White group, adding that they gave him a historical perspective he didn’t have previously.

Favor, who accepted an assistant superintendent job in Roseville in early May, said Southwest is committed to “dismantling any framework” that doesn’t align with the school district’s core priorities, one of which is equity.

Barrett said he doesn’t necessarily agree the foundation is “catering to the elite” with its fundraising approach but that what matters more is how it spends its funds. He said the foundation’s finances are in bad shape heading into the 2019-20 school year, adding that it’s been challenging to raise money since longtime principal Bill Smith retired in August 2017.

He recently appealed to school district leaders for funds to cover some of the 2019-20 grant requests, but the district rejected the plea. Last week, the foundation put out a call for donations on Facebook, noting that staff and student organizations made over $150,000 in grant requests for next year.