Minneapolis School Board adopts wide-ranging strategic plan recommendations

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At its Dec. 11 meeting, the Minneapolis School Board took a strong step forward in its strategic planning process, unanimously adopting a set of recommendations put forward by its strategic planning consultant, McKinsey and Co.

The recommendations were the result of a strategic planning process that began last spring, as McKinsey undertook comprehensive research to determine how to turn around the troubled Minneapolis School District, which has been plagued by a persistent racial achievement gap, low test scores, declining enrollment, inequitable programming between schools and financial shortfalls.

Bernadeia Johnson, chief academic officer for the Minneapolis School District, said the overarching goal behind the recommendations was to have “every child college ready” by the year 2012. She set specific targets for what that would mean: 80% of all Minneapolis students would achieve proficient scores on state tests in math and reading, 80% of students would reach the threshold scores on college entrance exams, and the race and income achievement gap would be reduced by 75%.

Reaching those targets, Johnson said, would require a three-pronged approach: increasing equity, expectations and achievement; strengthening relationships; and focusing resources. The specific recommendations adopted were as follows:

—To raise academic rigor for all students
—To identify and correct practices that perpetuate the achievement gap and institutional racism
—To develop and highly effective principal corps and make sure they have the capacity to form and lead outstanding instructional teams
—To develop a high performing teacher corps and provide professional development and support for teachers
—To set clear expectations for all staff, rewarding success and removing low performers when necessary
—To transform relationships and partner with families
—To establish supportive partnerships with city, county and state agencies and members of the business community
—To restructure the lowest 25% of schools and increase flexibility and autonomy for both the lowest and highest performing schools
—To create and sustain a positive financial position

The recommendations drew strong praise from many of the audience members who made public comments at the meeting, including Minnesota Commissioner of Education Alice Seagren, Mayor R.T. Rybak, state senator Patricia Torres Ray and First Ward Minneapolis councilperson Paul Ostrow.

Commissioner Seagren, who emphasized that she was also speaking on behalf of Governor Pawlenty, praised the plan for emphasizing reforms designed to improve achievement. “With this proposal, the Minneapolis district has an opportunity to blaze a new path,” she said, adding that “the governor and I will stand by you.”

Rybak also strongly praised the plan and committed to supporting its recommendations with city resources. “You are not in this alone,” he said. “Everyone has to be aligned to address the needs of kids in this community.”

While there was general support for the recommendations presented, School Board Director Chris Stewart expressed strong concern that the recommendations were too general, and didn’t include enough specific targets and details. “Raising expectations and academic rigor for all students—what’s the opposite of that?” he asked. “Not raising expectations and academic rigor for all students?” Director Lydia Lee said she regarded the recommendations more as presenting a direction for the district, rather than as a strategic plan.

With the board’s unanimous approval of the recommendations, Johnson said the next steps would be for the district to begin work in January to outline the specific actions that would be taken to achieve those recommendations. Those steps, she said, would be voted on by the board in March.

In other school district business, the board narrowly voted down a proposal to change the way that school board members are elected, a proposal widely known as the “Davnie Bill,” for its author, Seward-area state senator Jim Davnie. The bill, which was passed by the Minnesota legislature, would have increased the school board from seven to nine members, with six being elected from each of the city’s park districts and three serving at-large; currently all school board members run in a city-wide election. Supporters of the measure believe that electing school board representatives from specific areas of the city would increase the responsiveness of school board members.

The measure failed on a 4-3 vote, with Director T. Williams changing his mind during the meeting and deciding to vote against the measure. The proposal will now go up for a referendum vote in the general election in November 2008.

In a final piece of business, the School Board chose at the outset of the meeting to strike from the agenda a recommendation to close Folwell Middle School, 3611 20th Ave. S. Director of Operations Steve Liss explained that the district administration decided to table the recommendation and discuss it at a later date after receiving extensive feedback from the families and teachers at Folwell.

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