Grappling with high school changes

Integration plans being fine-tuned

High School Attendance Areas

Southwest High School would lose about a third of its students and become significantly whiter and more affluent if a plan to remake Minneapolis Public Schools (MPS) is approved.

But North High School, which would enroll students living in Uptown and the Chain of Lakes area, would become more diverse and see its enrollment increase by more than 1,000 students, according to modeling district leaders presented in February. In October, just seven white students were enrolled at the school.

As district leaders near their self-imposed deadline for the Comprehensive District Design (CDD), intended to reduce inequities and stabilize enrollment figures, they are facing widespread community pushback and are still struggling to articulate details of a plan that has uneven effects. 

South High School, which would start enrolling Whittier students, would become significantly more racially segregated under the models, with the number of students of color expected to increase from 63% to 88% — a fact that doesn’t sit well with district leaders.

“The discussion needs to be about whether we would split a middle school cohort to try and balance that isolation,” chief operations officer Karen DeVet said, adding that another strategy could be holding seats during the school-request, or lottery, process in an attempt to integrate economically.

Superintendent Ed Graff and his team intend to present a final draft of the CDD to the School Board ahead of a meeting on March 24. They have asked the board to vote on April 14 on the sweeping plan, which would remake education in the district through changes to boundaries, programs and grade configurations.

While some parents have applauded efforts to tackle longstanding inequities, there has been huge opposition to the models of proposed changes that have been presented throughout the winter.

Parents have said the plans go too far in disrupting students and that the district has not provided clear explanations for the changes it wants to make.

“It’s like whack-a-mole,” said Kenwood parent Alicia Gibson, adding that district explanations of the plan’s underpinnings don’t add up. “It’s very upsetting.”

The latest model, completed in late February, would diffuse enrollment throughout MPS’ seven comprehensive high schools, with North seeing the largest increase in students and Southwest seeing a nearly 600-student drop.

These changes, district leaders said, would allow now-smaller schools to offer more electives. District data chief, Eric Moore, said those courses often determine school quality from a student or parent’s perspective.

The latest model also centralizes high school career and technical education (CTE) programming in three buildings, a move district leaders said would help increase access to such courses across the city.

Karen DeVet and Superintendent Ed Graff
Minneapolis Public Schools Chief Operations Officer Karen DeVet and Superintendent Ed Graff listen to parent feedback on a plan to remake the school district at the conclusion of a Feb. 24 community forum at Roosevelt High School. Photo by Nate Gotlieb

Effect on integration

At two community meetings on the latest high school plans, DeVet said the district created the high school models with the goals of keeping middle school classes together and building enrollment in North Minneapolis.

Based on enrollment data from Oct. 1, 2019, Southwest would have 584 fewer students than it does now if only MPS students who live within the reconfigured boundaries attend the school.

Washburn’s enrollment would remain similar, and North, the smallest of the seven high schools at about 330 students, would see its student population increase to 1,430, about 330 of whom would be white.

District leaders are still working to tweak boundaries to maximize integration.

Moore said during a presentation in September that students who attend integrated schools are more likely to be civically engaged and have friends of different races. He also said that academic achievement can increase in integrated buildings.

In Southwest Minneapolis, parents have noted that the plan does not increase integration at every school and would make Barton and Armatage elementaries whiter. (District leaders say they have tried to strike a balance between integration and creating neighborhood schools, noting the segregated nature of housing in Minneapolis.)

In Kenwood and other parts of Southwest Minneapolis being shifted into North’s attendance zone, parents have said they don’t think the plans reflect the desires of the community.

Gibson, who’s also president of the Lowry Hill East Neighborhood Association, said the district should create schools that attract people back into the district and that it should listen to the desires of the North community.

North principal Mauri Friestleben wrote in a recent Facebook post that she is frustrated she wasn’t included in the “planning, ideation or strategizing around this design” and that she feels the redesign’s process reinforces “the white belief that the whiter the school, the better.”

Yet despite those feelings, she isn’t refusing to support the district’s plan. 

Friestleben wrote that her school will be successful, even without the buy-in of white families, because it’s working hard to take care of its students and has a culture of high standards and expectations.

“The future of North Community High School does not and will not rely on the white families of Minneapolis,” she wrote.

Changes to High Schools

Response to CTE

District plans to centralize CTE received a cool reception at a recent community forum, where parents wanted to know how kids would get to and from the centralized tech centers without significantly disrupting their days.

Some parents said the plan would make it harder, not easier, for all students to access such programming.

District leaders disputed that notion, noting a lack of enrollment currently in CTE courses and how several schools, for example, don’t have access to the engineering curriculum Project Lead the Way.

They also said they are working with Metro Transit on solutions to ensure kids who need to go between sites have convenient access to transportation.

Washburn 10th-grader Charlie Tripp, who takes engineering courses at the school, asked how students would meet their graduation requirements if they had to bus to and from North each day. (North would hold the district’s high school engineering program under the plan.)

Tripp, who is on Washburn’s robotics team, also said the school would lose key pieces of equipment his group uses to build its robot.

At-large School Board member Kimberly Caprini, who has a daughter at Henry, which has a robust engineering program, said she also struggles with the idea of centralizing CTE, though she knows districtwide changes are necessary.

She said it’s her “hope and expectation” that there’s a collaboration with Metro Transit so that students can spend less time on buses.

Upcoming work

DeVet said the district needs to finalize where it will put magnet schools, which are specialty schools intended to draw students of all races. (The district hopes that all of its magnet schools have enrollment of students of color between 50% and 70%, DeVet said.)

Another crucial piece of the final proposal will be any new school choice policies. Those could include holding seats at schools to integrate economically, though DeVet said it’s too early to comment on specific proposals.

School Board member Nelson Inz, who represents the southeast corner of the city, said he thinks a positive piece of the CDD could be that more students will be able to attend school in their neighborhood.

He said it’s important for people to realize that school choice exacerbates problems of privilege and race, which creates disinvestment in certain communities.

At-large board member Josh Pauly said he’s interested in learning more about how the plan encapsulates a values resolution passed by the School Board this past October. That resolution called on the CDD to provide all kids with a well-rounded and rigorous education and remove elements within the School Board’s control that further segregation.

The district’s teachers union, the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers (MFT), has come out against the CDD and said any plan must include “co-creation” from students, parents and teachers.

MFT secretary Greta Callahan, a kindergarten teacher at Bethune in North Minneapolis, said the district should keep programs that work and give more support to schools in need.

When asked about integration, she said the schools would still be segregated under the plan, noting high levels of segregation in Minneapolis’ neighborhoods.

The CDD continues to evolve, and boundaries could still change before March 24, DeVet said.

Any student enrolled at a high school through next school year would continue to attend their school through graduation. The incoming ninth-graders in 2021-22 would be the first to attend a new high school.

Any movement of grades K-8 students would not begin until 2021-22.