Community members gather to learn about, comment on school district’s strategic plan

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The Minneapolis Public School (MPS) district continued its efforts to communicate the findings and recommendations of its recently completed strategic plan with a public meeting for Area B community members and school staff at Dowling School on Thursday, Nov. 15. Area B includes district schools in the northeast, south and southeast sections of Minneapolis.

The district will be holding two additional area meetings to present information on the strategic plan and receive community feedback. The meeting for Area A, which is North Minneapolis, will be held on Dec. 3, from 6:30-8:30, at the Minneapolis Urban League at 2100 Plymouth Ave. N. The meeting for Area C, which is Southwest Minneapolis, will be held on Nov. 26, from 6-8 pm, at Jefferson School, 1200 W. 26th St. All members of the community are invited and interpretation and child care services are provided.

The meeting, which drew dozens of parents, teachers, district staff and community members, was led by representatives of McKinsey and Co., the district’s consultant for the strategic planning process, and school board members Pam Costain and Tom Madden. McKinsey representatives presented the findings of the strategic planning process, many of which were labeled “tough truths.” They included the fact that less than half of MPS students are meeting Minnesota state standards in reading and math, many MPS students who go on to college need remedial instruction, enrollment is down dramatically and the district is facing a $100 million deficit.

The specific goals of the strategic plan are to make major changes in the operations of the district so that by 2012, 80 percent of all MPS students will be proficient on the Minnesota Comprehensive Assessment (MCA) reading and math test, 80 percent of all MPS students will reach the threshold score on college entrance exams, and the current race and income achievement gaps will be reduced by 75 percent.

McKinsey representatives explained at the meeting that reaching those goals would require major changes in the way the school district and individual schools operate. They presented nine specific recommendations, including restarting the bottom 25 percent of schools in the district (approximately 10-15 schools), raising academic rigor and expectations for students in all schools, developing the principal and teacher corps and giving them the tools and support to ensure their success, setting clear expectations for all staff and removing underperformers, stabilizing the district’s financial situation and transforming relationships with families.

After McKinsey’s presentation of its findings, the final hour of the meeting was devoted to answering the many questions posed by audience members. They included the following:

Q: When will the school board be voting on the strategic plan recommendations and what will they be voting on exactly?

A: According to Pam Costain and Tom Madden, the board will be voting at the school board meeting on Dec. 11 and in the time leading up to that, board members will be meeting and talking with each other to try to determine which of the recommendations they have some consensus on, either to reject them, approve them, or approve them with modifications. The vote will be on those elements of the plan on which there is consensus.

Q: How can the district move forward if it doesn’t know what money will be available to implement the recommendations?

A: According to Pam Costain, the district can’t know what money will be made available from the state or other sources, but it must move ahead anyway and begin to build a consensus and a plan for what needs to be done to fix the Minneapolis schools. She emphasized that school board members have been meeting with leaders from the city, the county and the state, including Governor Pawlenty, and that there is strong support for the strategic plan recommendations. She said that partnerships between the district and other government entities will be necessary to make the plan work, but that she had been told that such support would be available.

Q: What will be the response of the teachers’ unions to the recommendations to restart the bottom 25 percent of schools and to give principals the power to form their their own teaching teams and get rid of underperforming teachers?

A: Director Costain said the recommendations clearly pointed to the need for changes in the MPS teachers’ contract, adding “that’s a very controversial issue.”

Q: What will these recommendations mean for the role of seniority in placing and retaining Minneapolis teachers?

A: Director Costain said that under the current contract, “teachers are in charge of where they are placed . . . [W]e think that that is no longer the way to run the district.” She said the recommendations show that individual schools need to be able to create teacher teams that are based on the specific needs of the students in the school, and that seniority can no longer be the sole determinant of which teachers teach in each school.

Q: What would it mean to restart or replace underperforming schools?

A: According to Director Madden, it could mean several things, including having such schools partner with high-quality charter schools or become teacher- or parent-organized schools. Director Costain added that teachers could make a bid to take over an underperforming school.

Q: How can schools be improved that have a large population of students living in poverty?

A: Director Madden acknowledged the challenges those schools faced, but pointed to examples of public schools in other cities, such as Boston and Chicago, and charter schools, such as the KIPP schools, that have been successful in raising the achievement of poor students and students of color. “There are schools that are making it work, and in general, we aren’t,” he said.

Q: What is the relationship between the strategic plan and the current high school reform plan?

A: According to Director Costain, the high school reform plan is related to the strategic plan in that it has the same underlying spirit and goals, but it is fundamentally a different initiative. Director Madden said the goal of the high school reform plan is to take the strengths of the popular programs at South, Southwest and Henry high schools and expand them to all seven of the Minneapolis high schools.

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