Initiative Will Expand Learning Options


Ben Perry, director of the North Side Initiative: “We are trying to have quality, world-class schools.”

Perry said that school administrators had to choose between keeping all schools open and improving the quality of education for North Side students.

“In June of 2008, the results will be seen,” Perry said. “This will succeed.” The initiative will be evaluated based on the specific goals set for it. These include better reading and math test scores, higher graduation rates, improvement of counseling and other support services, and increased student enrollment at North Side schools.

“People over the years have built an attachment to their schools. That’s to be expected,” Perry said. “But you can’t do a program when you don’t have the students to generate the money.” Each school’s budget is independent, and a large proportion of the revenue it gets is based on the number of students.

Due to low enrollment and revenue at some North Side schools, the school district has been unable to offer a full range of programs, Perry said. Courses that have been missing at some schools include fine arts, music, band, technology and programs for gifted children.

In addition to new courses and programs, North Side elementary school students and parents will see many other positive changes. They include:

* Lower class sizes in kindergarten through third grade. The number of pupils per teacher will be reduced from 26 to 21 this fall.

* All-day kindergarten Monday through Friday and half-day pre-kindergarten classes in all elementary schools. Kindergarten students previously were in school for half a day.

* Parental liaisons to aid staff members in all elementary schools. Perry said about half have them now.

* More support staff to help students with behavioral issues. “They will work with students on conflict resolution,” Johnson said, but some students still may have to be removed from schools.

* Expanded areas of free busing so North Side parents have a wider choice of schools.

* A performance-based teacher incentive program in some schools. Teachers at each school vote on whether to participate in this program.

* More opportunities for talented students to take advanced courses.

* Summer programs, such as academic and enrichment camps.

* Fresh Starting of two schools, Lucy Laney and Nellie Stone Johnson. This is a process required by the federal No Child Left Behind law when students’ math and reading test scores are low. A new principal is hired, and teachers have to reapply for their jobs.

The school closings mean job losses for district employees. Rob Panning-Miller, president of the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers, said that 63 teaching positions will be lost. But, with at least 50 retirements, he expects the number of layoffs to be low.

The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees represents the school district’s clerical, technical and health services employees. Jennifer Lovaasen, spokeswoman for AFSCME Council 5, said that layoffs will affect about 35 people, some part-time and others full-time. This represents about 10 percent of the membership in the union’s Minneapolis Public Schools local.

The Debate
A large proportion of the controversy over the initiative centers on the choices of schools to be closed. School officials said the decision was based on multiple factors. Pam Costain, chairperson of the seven-member Board of Education, said that enrollment, the condition of buildings and student achievement were among them.

“I have great confidence that this plan will work,” Costain said. “It will work because we have strong leadership in the schools.” She said most of the closed schools were operating at 50 percent or less of capacity, and the new program will provide so much more to the students who attended them.

Theartrice (T) Williams, another board member who supports the changes, said that something had to be done right away so the situation did not get worse.

Harvey Rucker, a retired Minneapolis teacher, principal and administrator, said that the initiative could help. He recalled his own experience with a similar program when he was principal of Lincoln Junior High on the North Side. (The historic building later housed Lincoln Elementary, one of the schools closed this year.)

In the turbulent times of the late 1960s, just after the Plymouth Avenue riots, Lincoln got extra money to hire more teachers, counselors and special education experts. Students got more individual attention and more summer school opportunities. As a result, their test scores increased. But such progress takes time, and changes are unlikely to be evident for at least two years, Rucker said.

Chris Stewart, the only board member opposing the program, said that the decision to close Lincoln and Jordan Park made no sense. Both buildings are in good shape, he said, and students were doing better academically. The new Jordan Park School opened in 1999. Many Lincoln and Jordan Park children will be going to Lucy Laney or Nellie Stone Johnson Elementary Schools. Stewart noted that students at both have had such low test scores that the schools are undergoing changes required by the No Child Left Behind law.

“What they did was abysmal,” said Bill English, co-chairman of the Coalition of Black Churches/African-American Leadership Conference. The schools were poorly chosen, especially Jordan Park and Lincoln, he said, and the district retained “two of the worst-performing schools in the state, Nellie Stone Johnson and Lucy Laney.”

At least one school in the southwest could have been closed, English said, but that “would have created a political problem” because residents there “are the most powerful in the school district. This is the wealthiest area of Minneapolis. They get what they want.”