Schools prepare for remote instruction

District restructuring plan released to public

Minneapolis Public Schools mail service worker Tim Ross drops off student work packets at Windom Spanish Dual-Immersion School. File photo

On March 26, Anthony Middle School social studies teacher Ryan Olson held a video conference with 47 of his students.

It was a test run for when he begins holding daily virtual office hours online starting April 6. That’s when Minneapolis Public Schools (MPS) will begin remote instruction, as mandated by Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz during the coronavirus pandemic.

“I quickly learned the power of the mute function,” Olson said.

Across Southwest Minneapolis, educators have been preparing to teach students remotely for the first time in their careers. They said it will require more parental involvement and for students to take more ownership of their education than usual.

“We’re asking really young learners to advocate for their education in a way that they’ve never had to do before,” Clara Barton Open School science teacher Tracey Schultz said. “Up to this point, it’s, ‘Go to school every day.’ Now it’s, ‘Get online every day. Get a device in front of you. Turn it on. Get to the right place.’ We’re expecting that they can be way more independent than any of them have ever been before.”

In Southwest Minneapolis schools, it appears much of the remote education will be based around online activities and interaction.

The district wants to distribute Google Chromebooks to students who need them and is ramping up its distribution efforts over spring break, but does not yet have enough of the computers to meet demand. In the short term, the district plans to distribute paper materials to students it cannot provide Chromebooks.

“We want to make sure those interactions [between students and teachers] are equitable,” Superintendent Ed Graff said at the March 26 School Board meeting, which was held virtually.

A district spokeswoman hasn’t yet responded to written questions asking how many devices MPS has and how many students reported not having access to a device.

Teachers across Minnesota, including in MPS, spent the school days between March 18 and March 27 preparing to teach remotely.

MPS surveyed families about technology needs and started distributing devices to high school students on March 26. Families who did not receive the original survey or a call from their teacher can contact their school or fill out a form online at tinyurl.com/mpstechneeds.

Devices will be provided with guidelines, tip sheets and instructions on how to log in and connect to a wireless network. The district will also make WiFi hotspots available for students who need internet access.

Students with technology concerns should contact the MPS service desk by phone at 612-668-0088 or email ehelpdesk@mpls.k12.mn.us. Staff are available Monday through Friday, between 7:30 a.m. and 4:00 p.m.

Meals for all kids

Walz’ order, issued March 25, requires schools to provide students with meals and to care for the children of health care and emergency workers during daytime hours Monday through Friday. Kids must be between ages 4 and 12 to qualify for the care. A district spokesperson declined to say how many families have accessed this care.

If you’re a first responder or health care worker, you can sign up for child care by emailing mpls.kids@mpls.k12.mn.us or calling 612-806-1602.

Walz also cancelled statewide standardized testing for the year. Education Commissioner Mary Cathryn Ricker said the state expects schools to keep paying their hourly workers during the closure.

MPS is providing 10 no-cost meals to all kids 18 and under at 50 locations around the city once each week. More information about where to pick up the meals is online at tinyurl.com/mpsmeals. School-based mental health services are still available for students who receive them when school is in session.

MPS is paying hourly employees who are preparing and distributing food, cleaning buildings and/or supervising the children of heath care workers and first responders an extra $3 an hour on top of their regular wages.

Employees who are typically paid through fee-driven activities such as Community Education or driver’s education classes and who do not have an ongoing work schedule will not be paid during the closing.

Shaun Laden, president of the district’s education-support professionals union, said how involved his members have been in planning for remote learning has depended on the school. He expected more clarity on his members’ roles in coming weeks.

School in session

Olson, the Anthony teacher, plans on assigning grades on a regular A-F scale, but he’s not planning any tests or vocab quizzes. He has plans for a big final project.

As he prepared to teach remotely, Olson set up his Google Classroom website, mapped out his fourth-quarter curriculum, traded emails with students and parents and met virtually with colleagues.

He said the biggest challenge of remote education will be meeting the needs of students who require extra services.

Washburn High School 11th-grader Luke Little said he has been staying on track through emails with teachers but misses his classmates.

“For me, not having the in-person experience, it just isn’t the same,” said Little, who is enrolled at the University of Minnesota through the Postsecondary Enrollment Options program.

At least one Southwest Minneapolis school has begun remote education so far.

Hennepin Elementary School, a grades K-5 charter school in Whittier, had its first day of remote education March 30. The grades 6-8 Hennepin Middle School in the Keewaydin neighborhood also held its first day March 30. The schools have a combined 402 students, almost all of whom live in poverty.

Hennepin Schools Executive Director Julie Henderson reported that the first day of remote education was successful. Staffers delivered a week’s worth of breakfasts and lunches to over 75% of students, and students also received packets with a week’s worth of assignments.

Each day, Hennepin Schools teachers will check in individually with 10 to 12 students. The school will pick up completed work packets each Monday when it delivers meals to families.

It plans on providing each of its 225 families with a tablet with internet capability next Monday. About 37% of the schools’ families do not have computers at home, according to Henderson.

Curriculum has been streamlined, she said, but is still focused on state standards. The elementary school building remains open for teachers who want to work there, but teachers also have the option of working remotely.

CDD released

While the Minneapolis School Board gave Graff emergency powers, it did not give him the ability to unilaterally approve his plan to remake the school district, which is called the Comprehensive District Design (CDD). The final draft of the plan was released March 27.

(Read the full CDD presentation here).

Graff and School Board chairwoman Kim Ellison have scheduled a vote on the plan, which includes changes to school busing zones, programs and grade configurations, for April 28. They might push back the vote to May 12 if they feel they don’t have sufficient ability to take public comment.

From left to right: Ellison, Graff, School Board treasurer Kimberly Caprini and student representative Nathaniel Genene. File photo

The final draft of the CDD is substantially similar to models released this past winter. Plans call for two fewer magnet schools and for the remaining magnet schools to be located closer to the city’s geographic center. Magnets are specialty schools that typically have larger busing zones than community schools.

Under the CDD, schools across MPS would have new busing zones. The brunt of high school career and technical education (CTE) would be located at just three sites in Minneapolis.

There would be a focus in the special education department on placing students in schools closer to their homes, rather than where there is available space.

“We feel like this is the right thing to do,” Graff said of the CDD.

Graff and his leadership team based the plan on a School Board “values” resolution passed in October. That called in part for decreasing school segregation and providing access to rigorous coursework and high-quality community schools to students in every area of Minneapolis.

Graff and his team said MPS would have 12 fewer schools that meet the state’s threshold for racial isolation and seven fewer schools where more than 80% of students live in poverty under the CDD.

About 35% of the district’s grades pre-K–8 students would move to a new school before the 2021-22 school year, according to modeling. Specific enrollment projections were not released to the public as this edition of the Southwest Journal went to press on April 1, despite a pledge by district leaders to do so by March 27.

Students currently enrolled in high school would not have to change schools.

The district would still allow families to enroll in schools outside of their busing zone, provided there is space available and a family can get their kids there without a bus. A draft regulation would allow the superintendent to limit intra-district open enrollment, but it does not provide specific criteria for doing so.

In Southwest Minneapolis, Armatage, Barton and Windom magnet schools would become community schools serving the immediate neighborhoods around the buildings. Barton would become a grades K-5 school instead of a grades K-8 school, and all three would have smaller busing zones.

Many parents at those three schools have opposed the proposed changes.

Jefferson Community School in Lowry Hill East would become a “global studies and humanities” magnet school and would continue having grades K-8. Green Central elementary school, located just east of Interstate 35W in the Central neighborhood, would become the district’s third Spanish dual-immersion elementary school, replacing Windom.

Some Green Central parents have said they do not want the building to become a magnet school.

Schools like Armatage and Barton could retain their specialty programs but would need to apply to do so. MPS would allow for up to six “specialty” schools.

Students who live in Lowry Hill East would attend Whittier Elementary School, Andersen Middle School and South High School. Under previous CDD models, those students had been slated for the Kenwood-Anwatin-North pathway.

Some parents and at least one School Board member, KerryJo Felder, continued to ask Ellison and Graff to delay the CDD vote during the last two weeks of March. Ellison has said it’s important for the board to continue doing its work during the pandemic.

Graff said there’s the possibility of an initial enrollment decline under the CDD but that he anticipates a long-term enrollment increase.

The School Board is scheduled to hear more about the plan during a virtual meeting set for April 14.