Southwest parents lead literacy effort

Southwest Minneapolis parents David Weingartner and Sara Spafford Freeman
Southwest Minneapolis parents David Weingartner and Sara Spafford Freeman are pushing Minneapolis Public Schools leaders to improve the district’s literacy practices, especially for struggling readers. They are pictured with Freeman’s 9-year-old son, Jack, at the district headquarters in North Minneapolis. Photo by Nate Gotlieb

Two Southwest Minneapolis parents are leading an effort to ensure that Minneapolis Public Schools (MPS) is better equipped to support struggling readers.

Linden Hills resident Sara Spafford Freeman and Lynnhurst resident David Weingartner have created the MPS Academics Advocacy Group with the goal of providing teachers with more training on foundational literacy skills, such as phonics.

The group wants the district to partner with an outside organization such as Groves Academy, a private school for students with learning disabilities, to better teach those skills. It also wants the district to develop a formal system of telling families if and when their students are having reading difficulties.

“Parents of struggling readers, researchers and the data are all saying what we are doing is not working,” Weingartner wrote in an email.

Less than half of all MPS third-graders read at grade level, according to standardized test scores from 2019. (Students did not take standardized tests in 2020 because of the pandemic.) That includes about 75% of white students but just 40% of Asian students and 25% of American Indian, Black and Hispanic students.

The district has seen small gains in reading scores among students of color in recent years, but the marks are still well behind most other districts in the state.

To teach reading, MPS uses a literacy curriculum from the New York-based Benchmark Education Company that focuses both on reading and writing. Critics say the curriculum isn’t based on best practices when it comes to reading. Specifically, they say that the curriculum places an ill-focused emphasis on teaching kids to memorize words and guess the meaning of words when stumped rather than using phonetic skills to sound them out.

Freeman said that such “cueing” can lead to struggles as assignments become more complex and as context clues disappear in older grades.

She and Weingartner are critical of the Benchmark curriculum, which has been rejected in Colorado for not being aligned with research on how children learn to read, as the nonprofit news site Chalkbeat has reported. But they have stopped short of calling for its removal from MPS, instead stressing the need for better staff training.

In a letter responding to the advocacy group, the district said that the Benchmark curriculum is grounded in research and includes 20 minutes of daily phonological awareness and phonics instruction for all K-2 students. The letter noted the diagnostic tools MPS uses to identify struggling readers and how students receive small-group instruction when they are recognized to have reading difficulties.

Additionally, the MPS Academics Advocacy Group is asking the district how it plans to comply with a new law requiring K-2 students who are not reading at grade level to be screened for characteristics of dyslexia.

The law allows districts to determine their own methods for screening students, and it calls for districts to make annual reports to the education commissioner on their efforts.

The group has also asked how the district will prioritize the needs of students of color, how it will notify parents and how it plans to screen students in third grade and above for reading difficulties.

Weingartner and Freeman have gathered testimonials from parents and teachers documenting experiences of how the district’s current literacy practices have not worked for students.

Their group isn’t alone in pushing the district to improve its literacy practices. The district’s “World’s Best Workforce” committee, a primarily parent-run advisory group that monitors MPS’ academics program, is urging the district to undertake a comprehensive review of its literacy program, noting the stagnating proficiency rates.

That committee says that the district has not provided enough information to determine whether or not its academic program is making progress toward reducing achievement gaps. It says the pandemic and the Comprehensive District Design restructuring plan that was passed in May have made it more difficult to devote time to the academic goals it is tasked with monitoring.

More information about the MPS Academics Advocacy Group is at academicsadvocacy.org.