District addresses technology gaps

School Board listens to voicemails on CDD final draft

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

At the beginning of the Minneapolis school district’s second week of remote education, the district had distributed internet-connected devices to about 70% of the roughly 13,000 MPS students who need one, communications director Julie Schultz Brown wrote in an email.

The district had also ordered about 3,400 WiFi hotspots for students who lack internet access.

Teachers say devices are critical to student success during the closure. They allow students to access materials, conduct research, record videos, turn in assignments and connect with teachers and peers.

“Can we put a packet in front of a kid? Sure. But, again, look at the inequity of that,” Clara Barton Open School science teacher Tracey Schultz said. “It’s not good enough, and it’s especially not good enough when the technology is out there.”

Minneapolis superintendent Ed Graff said the district wants to provide 2,000 devices per day to students during the week of April 13.

About 75% of deliveries are successful, Schultz Brown wrote. About 25% of the time, no one is home, a student doesn’t live at an address or the district can’t get ahold of the family.

Device dissemination has been the top priority at Jefferson Community School in Lowry Hill East, where about 90% of students are eligible for free or reduced lunch.

“We are working a lot of hours to do it,” principal Holly Kleppe wrote in an email.

Tracey Schultz said some families are sharing one device between multiple kids and many kids are still working out of packets.

Lyndale Community School principal Mark Stauduhar said his staff has been focusing on contacting all families, many of whom don’t have internet access.

Stauduhar said teachers have been engaging students who are online through virtual morning meetings, “goofy” videos and magic tricks. Students can communicate with one another through online commenting.

Attendance has improved in the days since Minneapolis Public Schools (MPS) began remote education. Teachers are tracking attendance through phone calls, text messages, emails and student participation in online activities. The absentee rate was 20% on April 6, the first day of remote education, and 15% on April 13, Graff said.

Meal distribution has also been a top district priority. Between March 17 and April 13, the district’s Culinary and Wellness Services (CWS) department had provided over 220,000 meals to students at sites throughout the city. CWS provides students with five breakfasts and five lunches each week, with locations viewable on the Free Meals for Kids mobile app. Families can take one free box of meals per child. Boxes have included everything from Eggo waffles to French toast sticks and pizza.

Ellie Lucas, CEO of Hunger Impact Partners, the nonprofit that built the mobile app, said the district worked hard to develop an afterschool snack and meal program but is still concerned about kids not getting an evening meal.

Comprehensive District Design

The final draft of a plan to remake the MPS through a series of structural changes was discussed for the first time by the School Board during its mid-April meeting.

The Comprehensive District Design (CDD) would centralize magnet schools and high school career and technical education (CTE) and redraw school boundary zones. Additionally, it would create a new lottery system for magnet schools and give the district the discretion to limit enrollment at high schools for equity purposes. Students would still be allowed to enroll in schools outside of their attendance zones.

Hundreds of people voiced opinions about the plan in voicemails left for the School Board before the meeting. Over 140 were played during the meeting, held online in an audio-only format.

Some parents at affected schools predicted the plan wouldn’t save money, close achievement gaps or meaningfully integrate schools, and many said the board shouldn’t vote on it during the pandemic.

Windom parent Amy Gustafson said the plan is “no more than a shuffling of bodies” so that MPS has fewer racially identifiable schools and can “stay ahead” of a segregation lawsuit.

“This plan does nothing to get at the root causes inside of schools that are the impediments to opportunity to students who are not achieving,” she said.

Justice Page Middle School parent Heather Anderson, who supports the plan, asked the board to “stay the course” and perform “healthy governance” for its most marginalized students. “We need to do the equitable thing,” she said.

School Board chair Kim Ellison said in an interview that she has long supported centralizing magnet schools and emphasizing neighborhood schools.

She wanted to know about options for families who would no longer be part of the attendance zone of the school that’s closest to their homes. High school students in the Windom neighborhood, for example, would be in the Southwest attendance zone, though Washburn is closer.

School Board vice chair Jenny Arneson said delaying the vote a few months would force the district to stay in its unsustainable financial structure for another year.

She urged the board to adopt clear implementation goals and timelines with the plan and asked Graff for more specificity on implementation steps.

At the meeting, board member Bob Walser said he “can’t believe” the board is having this discussion now and that the plan has “silenced” and “ignored” many parents.

“I simply don’t believe this plan will deliver equity,” he said.

The board is slated to vote on the plan on May 12.