“Mend, Don’t End” WMEP, say parents; “a vanity project,” says MPS

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More than 100 parents and students in the West Metro Education Program descended on Minneapolis Public Schools’ headquarters March 5 to give a piece of their mind to the Minneapolis Board of Education. The meeting followed last week’s vote to accept Superintendent Bill Green’s recommendation that MPS pull out of WMEP, effective June 30, 2009. Green says WMEP did not fulfill its desegregation mission, and failed to address the achievement gap between poor students and students of color, and white students.

“Pulling out is a step backwards,” said Leah Lynch of Minneapolis, the aunt of two WMEP students. Lynch and her brother are black.

“This has been very disruptive for the students,” said her brother Keith, also of Minneapolis. “They’re going through lots of different emotions when they should be working on raising their test scores.”

“WMEP is the wave of the future,” said Tim Voss, a white WMEP parent speaking about the district’s specialized learning models and integration goals.

“You don’t chop down a good tree,” said Adrian Kemp, a black IDDS parent, “you use it as a model for success.”

“IDDS and FAIR focus a great deal on individual learning plans for each student,” said Patrick Exner, WMEP’s Director of Teaching and Learning. Exner says this focus, plus the school’s small class sizes have made it attractive to students who haven’t done well in traditional public schools.

WMEP is a school district run jointly by 11 West Metro districts, including Minneapolis. Each district has a certain number of seats reserved in WMEP’s two schools – Fine Arts Interdisciplinary Resource School (FAIR), in Crystal MN, and the Inter-District Downtown School (IDDS), in downtown Minneapolis – based on the size of their student body relative to the total number of students enrolled in participating districts. Both schools now have a fine arts focus, although IDDS’s fine arts curriculum was only implemented this year.

The comments of the two dozen or more people who spoke Thursday night – chiefly FAIR students and parents – centered around how valuable the school has been for their children, and how academically successful the students of color at both FAIR and IDDS were, relative to students of color in Minneapolis schools, although many of the same parents did admit that both schools’ MCA-II scores could use significant improvement, particularly among poor students and students of color.

“Of course!” said MPS Chief Communications Officer Susan Eilertsen in response. “Give us a school with low numbers of homeless and highly mobile students, low concentration of poverty, low numbers of ELL [English Language Learner] students, and we’ll do great things, too!”

Many parents at the meeting complained that MPS’s motivations for pulling out were a “moving target,” in the words of Steve Lomen, a white FAIR parent. In a letter sent home to Minneapolis WMEP parents, Superintendent Green cited the program’s cost to MPS — $3.9 million according MPS spokesperson Emily Lowther – as one motivator. In his opening statement, Green pointed to WMEP’s failure to provide school environments that reflected the metro area’s demographics. When pressed, though, MPS board members and spokespeople cited a lack of commitment from WMEP member districts to fighting the achievement gap and metro-area racial and economic segregation as their chief reason for wanting to pull out.

“Instead of exploring how WMEP can address and close the achievement gap, support ELL and highly mobile students, and provide an updated policy on desegregation, WMEP board meetings focused mostly on administrative oversight,” said Green in his opening statement.

“We raised our concerns repeatedly at board meetings and board retreats,” said Eilertsen, but the unwieldy governance structure and a lack of commitment by member districts prevented substantive steps from being taken.

Dan Jett, WMEP superintendent, acknowledged that the board has been focused on administrative concerns for the past two years, but he said this was “episodic, not typical,” because the board had been designing and trying to implement a new strategic plan that included action on the achievement gap.

“Several member districts are using the program as a vanity project,” said Chris Stewart, a member of the MPS school board.

Stewart said WMEP was not trying to spread knowledge of their successes among member districts, many of whom have seen a dramatic increase in the number of immigrant families, poor families, and families of color over the last few years. School-by-school racial and economic segregation is getting worse, not better, Stewart said. “It’s getting to a point where we can only afford to work with those districts who are serious about addressing this,” he said.

According to Myron Orfield, head of the Institute on Race and Poverty at the University of Minnesota, poor students and students of color who attend schools whose student body is mostly poor and of color are very likely to drop out before graduating high school and stay in poverty, and much less likely to go to college. “It’s as near a death sentence as possible in a public school system,” he said in an interview last week.

Kyle Sanagima, a FAIR parent, spoke last at the hearing. Samagima said she was part of a “core group” of parent organizers who had mobilized Thursday night’s response.

“Thank you, Dr. Green for bringing the conversation to this point,” she said. “We [WMEP parents] offer a timeline of a year to really look hard at the issues,” and come up with a way to address them using the existing WMEP structure.

“Let’s mend it, not end it,” she said, echoing signs held by students throughout the meeting.

James Sanna (james.sanna@gmail.com) is a freelance writer, who frequently covers education issues.

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