How much longer for The Choice Is Yours school integration program in Minneapolis, suburbs?


Minnesota’s The Choice Is Yours program, which was started 10 years ago as a result of a settlement between the state of Minnesota and the NAACP, allows inner-city, low-income students from Minneapolis to attend suburban schools and Minneapolis magnet schools.  Supporters of the program, such as Jay Clark from the Center for Urban and Regional Affairs (CURA), fear that it is in danger of ending, and that the end of the program would close an educational opportunity that is vital to low-income, inner-city students. 

Since The Choice Is Yours program’s inception, the number of Minneapolis students attending suburban schools through the program has increased.  The first year, 472 participated, and that number increased three-fold the first seven years of its existence, according to a multi-year report by ASPEN Associates, Inc.  Currently there are about 2,000 students enrolled, according to Christine Dufour, Deputy Communications Director of Minnesota’s Department of Education. 

In March of 2000, after a bitter legal battle between the NAACP and the state of Minnesota, a settlement required eight suburban school districts to reserve 500 seats for low-income city students each year for the next four years (for a total of 2000).  The lawsuit stipulated that the state would pay for busing, and also communicate with families about school options.  The eight partnering school districts that began The Choice Is Yours were Columbia Heights, Edina, Hopkins, Richfield, St. Louis Park, St. Anthony/New Brighton, Robbinsdale, and Wayzata.  Eden Prairie, not involved in the original lawsuit, voluntarily admitted The Choice Is Yours students in 2005, according to the ASPEN report.

  Hearing from the students

On January 2, I stopped in at the Hubert Humphrey Center at the University of Minnesota Campus, where CURA was hosting its weekly tutoring session with Hmong youth, most of whom were The Choice is Yours students.  I came to the session in order to interview some of the young people and take some photographs, but when I arrived, I was recruited to help out with the tutoring, as the University wasn’t in session and there was only one tutor available. (All the students were told that I was a reporter and would be interviewing them for an article.)

As I struggled helping thirteen-year-old Mai Vang with her algebra, I talked to her a little bit about attending Hopkins North Jr. High, which she attends through the Choice is Yours program.  She has attended Hopkins North for three years, before which she went to Jordan Park in Minneapolis.  She arrived in the United States on August 22, 2004, she said, and while she struggled learning English at her former school, she only had to take ELL classes for one year at Hopkins.  She was able to quickly pick up the language at her new school because there weren’t as many Hmong students. Most of her friends, she said, are Americans.  She said she is also happy to be at Hopkins because there are more choices for classes, and she is able to play violin in the orchestra, while that opportunity was not available at Jordan Park.  While her classes are difficult, and she said she’s “catching up.” she loves learning, especially math.  “It’s so good,” she said.

It became quickly apparent, in fact, that Vang knew a lot more about algebra then me, so after she figured out the answers to her questions, I went on to speak to Kao Xue, who goes to Hopkins High School and Soua Xiong, who attends Hopkins North Junior High.  The girls echoed Vang’s statements that their English improved quickly at Hopkins, and they believed the teachers and education were better.  Besides, they said, the lunches were better as well. 

Srisuk Vang, Kayeng Xiong and Jerry Yang

I talked to a number of Hmong students, many of whom came to the United States in 2004 and 2005 from the Wat Tham Krabok refugee camp in Thailand.  All of the students I spoke to said they believed their education was better at Hopkins, and that their English was better.  “When we meet American people, we speak English,” said Srisuk Vang, while at his old school “We spoke Hmong all the time.” 

Many of the students said they appreciated the different options available to them.  Ger Vue, for example, said he was happy to be able to take art classes.  Others take band, and participate in after-school sports.  Neng Vang is excited to take Computer II, where he gets to take apart computers and learn their systems.  He’s also taking Chinese. 

Jerry Yang, a Hmong student who was born in California, said one of the reasons he preferred to go to school in Wayzata is that there “are better people” than in Minneapolis schools.   “There were fights and stuff,” he said, at his old school. 

Other students believed that there were fewer interruptions at their suburban schools, and that the students were more respectful. 

Lee Yang, who has attended Hopkins North Jr. High for three years, said she preferred her school because she believes it will help her get to college.  “They tell you what classes you have to take in order to go to college,” she said. 

In the end, I didn’t end up being a very good tutor, in part because eighth grade math apparently is too advanced for me, but also because the kids were extremely motivated to succeed. 

The Choice Is Yours program has continued after the four-year requirement, although the results have been mixed.  According to the ASPEN report, after four years, the answer to the question “What impact does The Choice Is Yours program have on student achievement?” remains unanswered.  The report states that a comparison of the annual growth of suburban choice participants in reading and mathematics to that of eligible, non-participants revealed mixed results over the years. 

For some students, the opportunity has been an invaluable way to get a better education.  The Aspen report states that almost all (96% in the final year) suburban choice parents would recommend the program to others. However, there is a high turnover rate with the program, with only two-thirds of the participants returning each year for the first seven years, according to the Aspen report.   

Funding for the program, which comes from the federal level, is supposed to continue through 2013. But the funding comes at the discretion of Congress, according to Christine Dufour, who said the federal government determines the actual amounts to be awarded each fiscal year.

Jay Clark, from CURA, said that a number of the Hmong immigrant children that he works with have been trying to apply to Wayzata high school.  Last December, they were told that Wayzata wasn’t taking any more The Choice Is Yours students.  Last June, Hopkins stopped taking new students, according to Clark.  Also, Edina has put a cap on the number of students that can come in, according to Clark.

Heather Lindstrom, from Minnesota’s Department of Education, said that the state pays for The Choice Is Yours program through Voluntary Public School Choice, a federal funding grant.  Though the state has been granted the award through 2013, funding has only been allocated through this year.  “It may or may not continue,” Lindstrom said.  The grant is overseen by the Minnesota Department of Education in partnership with the Minneapolis Public Schools, the West Metro Education program, the Center for School Change (which works with dual enrollment students through PSOP), the Plymouth Youth Program, and Lang Evaluation. 

Lindstrom said that recruitment for The Choice Is Yours varies.  Currently, information is available at the Hennepin County Government Center.  Other recruitment efforts include flyers at the bus stops, information at buses, and at the Mall of America, distribution of brochures, radio advertisements, and publicity at culturally specific community activities. 

During the 2004-2005 school year, the Minneapolis Parent Information Centers, which were supposed to facilitate outreach and support for students, were originally headed up by the NAACP, and formed a nonprofit organization and received 501(c)(3) status, according to the Aspen report.  The centers, one at Sabathani, and one at 2000 Plymouth Avenue North, have both closed. 

Michael Schwartz, business manager for Richfield Public Schools, said that this year there were 117 students enrolled in Richfield’s The Choice Is Yours program, which peaked in 2007, with 211 students.  Schwartz said that his understanding is that once a school district reaches 50 percent free or reduced lunch students, the school district shouldn’t have to continue the program.  

“The demographics of Richfield are more closely aligned with the urban school districts,” Schwartz said.  “The diversity of our school district continues to grow.”   Richfield currently only accepts new The Choice Is Yours students for high school, although they are allowing some elementatry-level students to continue in the program. 

“We feel we can teach to all kids,” Schwartz said.  He said there is some perception in the community that there is a negative connotation attached to The Choice Is Yours students, but he said that the kids that participate “are good kids… there really is no problem.” 

Columbia Heights does not cap enrollment at for The Choice Is Yours.  This year, they have 401 students. The number has gone up every year, according to Nicole Halabi, Director of Student Services.  Halabi said that the students participating in the program have the opportunity for the variety of programming that Columbia Heights offers, particularly a very strong after-school program, called Encore.  The drawback, she said is that there is poor turnout for parent-teacher conferences, because the schools aren’t close to home. 

Jim Grathwol, a lobbyist for Minneapolis Public Schools said The Choice Is Yours program has produced mixed results, academically.  In the survey data, parents and kids feel good about their choices, but there is a significant attrition rate, hovering around 50 percent. 

Minneapolis has an abundance of choice for low-income students, according to Grathwol, including charter and magnet schools, The Choice Is Yours, and other programs.  But, he asked,  “How do we demonstrate we’re delivering for the low income students we serve?”  While there seems to be agreement that the current model isn’t getting the job done, the innovations, such as charter, The Choice Is Yours, open enrollment, etc., “don’t seem to be delivering game changing improvements… What do we need to do to move the needle?”

“All I can say is we are participating in The Choice Is Yours voluntarily,” Grathwol said, “We’re looking at internal and external programs  and asking: Is this best tool to deliver results we want? Uniformly, we’re underwhelmed by our ability to close the achievement gap in a systematic matter.”  Unfortunately, he said, there’s “no silver bullet.”