Field trips to feeder schools. Phone calls to students who miss more than two days of school. A change of culture to ensure kids of all races feel welcome.
Those are some ideas a Minneapolis Public Schools (MPS) taskforce charged with increasing student retention has been exploring.
Since March, the group of about 25 school leaders and district staffers has been brainstorming ways to keep families in the district, which saw an 800-student drop between October 2018 and June 2019.
Their aim is to create a systematic approach to retention that all schools could follow, Superintendent Ed Graff said at the Aug. 27 School Board meeting.
MPS, which owns 75 buildings and runs nearly 70 schools, has seen its enrollment decline to just over 36,000 students as of October 2018 from more than 48,000 in 2000.
The district says it loses 5,000 students a year to open enrollment in other districts and another 5,000 to charter schools. While it retains a higher proportion of school-aged residents in South Minneapolis than it does in North Minneapolis and Northeast Minneapolis, the problem has affected schools throughout the city.
“We’re paying for a larger infrastructure than the school district can sustain with the number of students we have,” said Julie Schultz Brown, the district’s head of marketing and communications.
Over 1,500 students left MPS during the 2018–19 school year while just 700 came into it. More than half of those who left were black and more than 80% were students of color and indigenous.
A spring 2018 survey found that common reasons families leave the district include experiences with discipline practices, unmet expectations, lack of communication and moving out of Minneapolis.
Brown is coordinating the retention taskforce. She said the group has focused on how to make students feel welcome.
She said the group has divided into smaller subcommittees focused on everything from retaining students as they transition into middle school to improving school culture.
The district is also talking about efforts to improve academic outcomes, Brown said, though it’s having those conversations as part of its strategic planning process. Graff plans to unveil a revised draft of the strategic plan next month, after a draft unveiled this past spring was met with skepticism.
Brown said stabilizing and boosting MPS’ enrollment is critical to all students in Minneapolis, including those in Southwest Minneapolis, where most schools are near or at capacity.
“In order for the schools in the south to receive the support they need and offer their kids what they need and want, we can’t be using resources elsewhere,” she said.
Debating a ‘top-down’ approach
At the Aug. 27 School Board meeting, KerryJo Felder, who represents North Minneapolis, said the district’s approach to retention was too much of a top-down, one-size-fits-all approach.
“We need to reach out to the families to ask them what they need in each individual school,” Felder said. “Because each school is going to be different.”
North High School Principal Mauri Melander Friestleben, who previously served as principal of Lucy Craft Laney Elementary School, said taskforce members empathized with that sentiment. But she said there are basic retention activities — such as addressing the transition to middle school — that aren’t happening but should be. “That goes beyond where you’re located and where your families are,” she said.
District leaders said the taskforce will keep meeting this year. They plan to concentrate this year’s recruitment and retention efforts between October and February — the period when families are asked to fill out their school request forms.
A few marketing efforts started this past summer, such as projects to remind families about registration deadlines and to improve the websites of 13 low-enrollment schools. One of those schools was the pre-K–8 Jefferson Community School at 26th & Hennepin, which has seen enrollment drop to about 435 from over 700 in 2013.
Jefferson principal Holly Kleppe said the school mailed out postcards to families this summer and also went door to door to all of its pre-K families to encourage them to stay there for kindergarten.
Family liaison Saidi Omar said she thought the effort was successful, noting that it brought about half a dozen kids to the school.
At an August open house, scores of Jefferson families registered for school, got no-cost supplies and learned about activities and programs offered by community partners, such as the Girl Scouts. Parent Fadumo Duale said she’s told other families about the school, which she called a “second home” for her three kids who attend it.
That’s a sentiment district leaders are hoping to recreate throughout the district, both through programming and staffing.
“We have to get to a spot where we feel really good about the services we’re providing students,” Friestleben said. “Then [engagement] will become really organic and authentic.”