District’s plan scrutinized as deadline nears

School Board intends to vote in April despite coronavirus

protest a plan to remake Minneapolis Public Schools
Students and parents protest a plan to remake Minneapolis Public Schools on March 10 outside the school district headquarters. The plan is set for a vote in April, despite the schools closure stemming from coronavirus. Photo by Nate Gotlieb

The Minneapolis School Board still intends to vote next month on a plan to remake the district, despite the state-mandated school closure stemming from the coronavirus pandemic.

Superintendent Ed Graff and School Board chairwoman Kim Ellison have set the Comprehensive District Design (CDD) vote for April 28. District buildings will be closed until at least April 6, though officials are gearing up for a longer closure. 

Graff and Ellison might delay the CDD vote another two weeks to May 12 if the pandemic forces them to significantly restrict public feedback or cancel meetings.

They also may hold the vote during an online meeting. State law allows school boards to hold meetings via telephone or other electronic means during a health pandemic; generally, a board must ensure that people available at the regular meeting location can hear discussion and testimony.

“There are ways for us to continue the work of the district,” Ellison said. “I think it’s important that we do so.”

The School Board had been planning to vote April 14 on the CDD, which includes changes to school programming, attendance zones and grade configurations.

Many parents had already asked for additional time to study the plan and provide feedback. They had also asked MPS for more information on the plan’s benefits.

On March 17, a multi-school parent coalition that had called for a delay reiterated its position.

“Moving forward with the vote — especially at a time like this — without thorough input from impacted communities is a betrayal of your duties as public servants,” KidsFirstMPLS wrote.

But Hale Elementary School parent Shilad Sen said families have historically argued against change at the expense of equity.

“Delaying a month likely means delaying a year,” he said. “Our families not being served by Minneapolis Public Schools cannot and will not wait.”

Ellison said MPS and School Board members have been listening to community feedback. She hasn’t seen the final draft of the plan, but senior staff assured her they have made changes based on community feedback.

“They will be able to answer a lot of the questions that people have,” she said.

MPS has said the CDD has the potential to increase academic achievement, ensure compliance with federal laws and eliminate policies and practices that disadvantage low-income students and students of color.

Goals include reducing racial segregation and ensuring that all students have access to a good school in their neighborhood. The main strategies include drawing new attendance zones and centralizing magnet schools and high school career and technical education (CTE) services.

Elementary and middle school students would begin attending new schools in fall 2021 under the plan. The district would not require already enrolled high school students to change buildings, but incoming ninth-graders would start at their new “community” high school that fall. 

parent of students at Barton and Windom schools
Silvia Ibanez, a parent of students at Barton and Windom schools, is among the parents who has asked the school district to slow down its redesign process. Photo by Nate Gotlieb

Magnet concerns

At the School Board meeting on March 10, when the CDD was less than six weeks away from a final vote, dozens of parents asked MPS for more information and said the changes would have negative effects.

Testifying to the board, Whittier International magnet school parent Monica Mesa said that the school would have higher concentrations of students in poverty and students of color, which would run contrary to district goals of reducing racial segregation.

At Whittier, which currently draws students from across Minneapolis, about 80% of students are students of color and about 80% qualify for free or reduced-price lunch; that’s typically used as an indicator of poverty.

Under the latest CDD model, about 93% of students would be students of color and about 86% would qualify for free or reduced-price lunch.

Mesa asked the district to adjust Whittier’s proposed boundaries and try to keep as many current staff members there as possible.

Windom Spanish Dual-Immersion magnet school parent Jose Agustin Mejia said Hispanic families feel welcomed at the school.

The CDD would make Windom a community school and would send elementary-aged immersion students to other buildings. Mejia said Hispanic families at the school may seek options outside of MPS because of the CDD.

Abdullahi Aden, a bilingual program assistant at Armatage Montessori magnet school, said Somali parents there are unhappy with the CDD, because they would lose their busing there.

He said Somali families like Montessori education and that Armatage’s Somali students exit the English-learner (EL) program faster than at other schools.

Somali parents at the K-8 Clara Barton Open magnet school in East Harriet have also spoke out against the plan, which would shrink Barton’s busing zone.

Parents at Green Central Park community elementary school, located just east of Interstate 35W and home to about 30 Southwest Minneapolis students, said the CDD could imbalance at what’s already an integrated school.

Green Central had 300 students as of Oct. 1, and about 94% were students of color. But parents there said defining diversity simply by looking at the number of white kids compared with kids of color is too simplistic.

About half of Green Central students are Hispanic, and there are also Somali students and students from other ethnic backgrounds.

Graff said he recognized the diversity among MPS’ students of color but that he’s trying to create a plan that reduces the number of “racially isolated” schools, as designated by the state. Those are schools with concentrations of students of color that are significantly above the districtwide average.

School Board member Bob Walser, who represents the Chain of Lakes and Downtown, said K-8 schools are important to students who are homeless and highly mobile. At past meetings, he has encouraged Graff to look into expanding K-8 options, instead of only offering K-5 and 6-8 configurations.

Walser has also cited research by Lake Nokomis Community School parent Nicole Nafziger, a food scientist by profession, who found that middle school students in K-8 buildings are disciplined at lower rates and report higher levels of school satisfaction.

MPS middle schoolers perform similarly on the Minnesota Comprehensive Assessment regardless of the type of school, when factors such as poverty are incorporated, Nafziger found.

In arguing for a 6-8 model, MPS leaders have said the district doesn’t provide the same level of offerings to students in other models, something parents have disputed.

The district has also said it would cost millions to install similar programming found in 6-8 schools in non-6-8 models.

Board rally

Scores of parents rallied against the plan outside of MPS’ North Minneapolis headquarters before the School Board meeting on March 10.

Once inside, they traded chants with parents affiliated with the Advancing Equity Coalition, a group of parents and organizations that includes Integrated Schools Minneapolis and the J.D. Graves Foundation, which some parents criticize for its funding of charter schools and education-reform organizations.

“Our kids can’t wait!” the Advancing Equity Coalition chanted, to which the dozens of parents responded, “Show your work!”

Over a dozen parents affiliated with the coalition spoke in support of the plan at the meeting.

When asked for his reaction to the public comments, Graff said he recognizes that the CDD has generated much conversation and that the district continues to hear from stakeholders.

MPS plans to make a final draft of the plan available to the public on March 27. For the latest CDD updates, visit mpls.k12.mn.us/cdd.