A fourth generation Northeaster, newly elected Minneapolis School Board member Jenny Arneson is strongly rooted in her community. Her three sons all attend Waite Park Community School in Northeast, where Arneson has been an active PTA member, helping develop initiatives to build community and strengthen parent involvement. She also has a background in social work and community organizing. The Twin Cities Daily Planet talked to Arneson about using her experiences on the small scale, local level, and how this experience can inform the discussion on how to strengthen the Minneapolis Public Schools as a whole.
Twin Cities Daily Planet: Can you tell us about the Spanish Speaking forum you helped form at Waite Park Community School?
Jenny Arneson: Waite Park has a significant percentage of families who speak Spanish as their first language… so I started a group that focused specifically on Spanish speakers… the idea was to offer a group that spoke Spanish first and translated into English second just to see what sort of response we’d get. And that response was really positive and really overwhelming.
TCDP: What was your experience fundraising for Waite Park?
JA: Parent involvement isn’t only fundraising—that’s really important [but] my goal is for every family to feel that they can engage with their school in some way. It could be financial, it could be time it could just be helping their child… So our school is 70 percent free and reduced lunch rate. I think there’s this idea that somehow if you are above a certain rate of poverty that somehow those families have less to give and what we started doing is just looking at fundraising a different way. So we started in the fall. We did this major fall fundraising effort. One of the things that we did was start a coin drive so that kids of all income levels could bring little bit and feel like they contributed, but the bigger portion of that is that we went out into the community and found business sponsorships. Not big corporate businesses—chains—we went to small business owners who felt some connection to their community and connection to the school, and they started helping us financially. We, in return started talking about their business and our families started going to those businesses. It was a reciprocal relationship—let’s support our business and let’s let local business support us.
TCDP: How do you bring your experience with the PTA into the school board?
JA: I think there are many things that the Minneapolis Public Schools do well on a small scale on a daily basis… I think what we need to do though is improve implementing this effective engagement on a larger scale… I think we should create a model that engages parents and engages community members before decisions are made so they can help inform the decision.
TCDP: How would this be implemented throughout the district?
JA: I guess what I’m talking about is in our decision-making. For example—there’s a large decision that needs to be made. What we tend to do now is we tend to make a proposal—we announce a proposal—we’re going to do this or that—and then we go out into the community and tell the people about our proposal and then we try to convince them that this is a really good idea. And then people get really angry and upset. That’s our current model. An alternative model would be we’d go to the community and say we have this issue and we need to figure out this larger problem. These are the scenarios … this is the situation, these are some potential impacts, these are some potential ideas, but we are really interested in your feedback. And we engage in the community. We don’t necessarily have one way to engage in the community.
TCDP: How do you implement the policy?
JA: That’s always the trick isn’t it? Policy verses implementation… If I were to create a task force, it is about examining—and I don’t necessarily have the best answer on how to do this right now but part of my goal over the next few months is to implement a system that is going to work.
TCDP: So what about this fundraising piece? Would it work the same way?
JA: … I hesitate to do something like that and regulate it district wide. That fundraising model worked for this particular school. I think it can work in many schools. But the thing about community engagement is when you start breaking down those barriers and people start talking to each other and start bringing those innovative ides to the whole community, we can tweak it to what works for them.