Demagnetizing Southwest schools

District leaders consider reshuffling busing zones and magnet schools

Jefferson Community School
Jefferson Community School

School district leaders are looking for community input on a sweeping plan that could reshuffle elementary and middle school busing zones and cluster magnet schools in the city’s geographic center.

Fourth-year Superintendent Ed Graff and his team had not formally proposed any structural changes as of mid-December. But they had presented a model, created with the goals of increasing racial and socioeconomic integration and reducing transportation costs, which would make major changes to almost every public elementary and middle school in the city.

Under the model, Southwest Minneapolis’ four magnet schools — Clara Barton Open in East Harriet, Armatage Montessori, Anwatin Spanish Dual Immersion in Bryn Mawr and Windom Spanish Dual Immersion — would become traditional community schools. Jefferson Community School in Lowry Hill East, which currently has K-8 students, would become a magnet school for grades 6-8 focused on Science, Technology, Engineering, Art and Math (STEAM).

Nearly every Southwest Minneapolis elementary and middle school would have its busing zone redrawn. District leadership did not include high schools in the model, since high school students use Metro Transit for transportation.

At the Dec. 12 School Board meeting, Graff stressed that the model is not the district’s final proposal and that leaders will incorporate feedback from a series of listening sessions planned for January and February. But he and his leadership team said they strongly favor some of the core tenets of the model, such as clustering magnet schools and educating students in grades 6-8 in a middle school.

“This study gives us a possible concept about how we might move forward with this work,” Graff said.

The model is the latest step in a project the district is calling the “Comprehensive District Design.” The aim of the project, which also includes changes to the academic program, is to improve outcomes and increase opportunities, particularly for students of color, to decrease racial segregation and to ensure the district’s long-term financial stability.

“We’re at a point where we really owe it to everybody here to continue to think strategically,” Graff said.

Minneapolis Public Schools has more than 33,000 K-12 students at over 65 schools around the city. Approximately two-thirds of its students are non-white, and, as of fall 2018, over 55% qualified for free or reduced-price lunch.

Achievement gaps between the district’s white students and students of color are stark. On the statewide reading test, for example, 77% of white students received a passing score, compared with 26% of Hispanic students, 18% of African American students and 17% of American Indian students. Wide disparities also exist in graduation rates, ACT scores and disciplinary actions.

District leaders say the system is designed to disadvantage students of color. They note that the most academically proficient schools, where there are often more white and middle- or high-income students, have more experienced teachers than schools with high concentrations of students of color and low-income students. Students at those schools also have more access to rigorous and advanced academic coursework.

“We fundamentally believe that continuing to do nothing, tinkering around the edges, and maintaining the status quo is unacceptable,” the district’s website reads.

The “Comprehensive District Design” project also comes as the district continues grappling with budget gaps, driven by increased costs and declines in enrollment, particularly in the northern half of Minneapolis.

In addition, the district is facing a potential settlement in a lawsuit alleging that past MPS decisions have perpetuated segregation and are leading to children of color getting a separate and unequal education. The parties in that lawsuit, Cruz-Guzman v. State of Minnesota, are currently in mediation, according to Daniel Shulman, an attorney for the plaintiffs.

Myron Orfield, a University of Minnesota law school professor who specializes in civil rights, wrote in an amicus brief on the case that school segregation in Minneapolis is getting worse.

For example, most Southwest Minneapolis elementary schools were fairly balanced between white students and students of color in the mid-1990s, Orfield wrote. By 2014-15, most Southwest Minneapolis elementary schools were majority white.

Anwatin Middle School
Anwatin Middle School

Magnet school changes

MPS originally set forth a series of structural changes this past spring, including changes to school pathways and programs. District leadership scrapped those plans in September and began to create a revised plan that focused more on addressing systemic inequities.

In October, the School Board passed a resolution providing Graff with guidance for developing the project. The resolution calls on the superintendent to, among other things, provide equitable access to “rigorous” academic opportunities throughout the city and to do his best to reduce racial and economic segregation.

In November, district leaders set about drawing new busing zones for elementary and middle schools in a way designed to increase integration, modeling the changes with the assumption that all elementary and middle school students would attend their “community” school. They then tried to place magnet schools in a way that would further increase integration.

Magnet schools, which specialize in particular themes and curricula, are designed to draw students from other parts of the district to increase racial and economic integration, according to MPS. They may access federal integration dollars and offer transportation to students in an extended attendance area.

Community schools, by comparison, have a traditional academic program and typically draw students from the areas immediately around them.

With the model under study, the district would have 10 magnet schools, instead of the 13 it currently has. There would no longer be “open” magnet schools, and there would be fewer Montessori and Spanish dual-immersion schools, though the district would create new magnets focused on STEAM.

There would also no longer be International Baccalaureate (IB) elementary and middle schools, though district leadership has said schools could potentially continue offering IB programs. Eric Moore, the district’s research director, said community schools could also apply to have “specialty” programs like Montessori, though the district would be careful to ensure that they don’t compete with magnet schools with the same offerings.

The model does not propose any programmatic changes to high schools.

All of the magnets would be located within the middle third of the city — generally between Lake Street to the south and Broadway Street to the north — a setup the district says could make them more accessible to all students.

Each Southwest Minneapolis elementary and middle school, except for Burroughs in Lynnhurst, would see changes to its busing zone, which is generally defined as the area in which the district will provide transportation to and from school under the model.

The model would change the pathway middle school for students at Kenwood, Whittier, Windom, Lake Harriet and Barton schools — all of which would serve only students in grades K-5.

It’s unclear whether the district would allow students who live outside a busing zone to attend a community school in another busing zone, which is currently allowed, though those families must provide their own transportation. School districts are allowed to determine their own intra-district transfer policies, according to the Department of Education.

Under the model, the district could cut the number of racially isolated schools to 10 from 20, according to an analysis by its research department. Racially isolated schools have a proportion of students of color that’s more than 20 percentage points higher than the district rate of 66%.

The plan could also lead to millions in savings on transportation by reducing the length of bus routes and therefore allowing buses to complete more routes each morning. Moore said it has the potential to increase access to after-school programming and potentially lower class sizes in Southwest Minneapolis.

Those savings could allow the district to provide transportation to more students. Currently, elementary students are not generally eligible for transportation if they live within half a mile of a school. The half-mile radiuses around those schools are referred to as “walk zones.” One common reason families leave MPS, Moore said, is because they want shorter walk zones or door-to-door transportation.

Barton Open School
Barton Open School

Skepticism from parents

The model received a cool reception from some parents at the district’s Spanish dual-immersion schools. They questioned the wisdom of potentially moving a well-established immersion program out of Windom, and they expressed skepticism about the district having enough immersion seats with just two immersion schools.

Other parents advocated against moving all students in grades 6-8 to middle schools and said they’re troubled by the potential loss of diversity in their schools.

At a meeting of Armatage’s “Welcoming Equity” committee, parents asked School Board members Josh Pauly, Kimberly Caprini and Kim Ellison how the district would ensure their new schools have the same quality as Armatage. Some Somali parents said they don’t want to lose the ability to attend Armatage.

Other parents at the School Board meeting encouraged the board to maintain its focus on integration and students of color.

“Please don’t get moved by the loud voices, and remember those people who do not always have the power, influence and time to speak for what they need,” parent Heather Anderson said.

At the Dec. 12 meeting, board members generally appeared in favor of centralizing the magnet schools, though opinions were mixed on eliminating K-8 schools.

Board member Bob Walser, who represents the part of Southwest Minneapolis around Lake of the Isles and near Downtown, said he’d like to see a model that has all K-8 schools or a stronger emphasis on dual immersion. He also said he doesn’t see student, parent or teacher voices included in the model under study.

“Those things have me very, very deeply concerned,” he said.

School Board member Jenny Arneson (Northeast/University) said she’s less worried about grade-level configurations for middle school students than talking about a “developmentally appropriate middle school experience.”

She said the idea of centralizing the magnet schools means South Minneapolis children may need to travel to North and Northeast Minneapolis for programs.

“For decades, we have had no problem telling North and Northeast [Minneapolis] children that it’s reasonable to travel to South Minneapolis for programs,” she said. “If we are really committed to equity, then we need to hold ourselves to the same standards in every neighborhood.”

Armatage Montessori School

Next steps

Much is still to be determined about the plan, including decisions about procedures for entrance into magnet schools and whether students outside of a community school’s busing zone can attend that school. District leaders are also working on plans to reconfigure special education and install new pieces of its academic program, such as a new math curriculum.

District leaders plan on presenting a final plan to the School Board in March before an April vote. No school pathways or boundary changes or closures/relocations would occur before the 2021-22 school year.

A series of listening and information sessions about the models are slated between Jan. 15 and Feb. 19. More information about the Comprehensive District Design, the information sessions and the timeline are available at mpls.k12.mn.us/cdd.