Minneapolis School Board candidates weigh in on education challenges and successes

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The Minneapolis Public Schools Board of Education is transitioning to having representatives from geographic areas as well as citywide seats. Kim Ellison is the only candidate for the district that includes North Minneapolis therefore will not be on the Aug. 14 primary election ballot.

Four people are running for a citywide seat; two will advance from the primary to general election. NorthNews asked them to talk about their credentials, challenges to the success of public education in North and Northeast Minneapolis, and what they are most proud of in the school system. Their answers, are in alphabetical order:

Carla Bates

Credentials: “Right now our schools are poised to make significant gains in student achievement, and I am seeking a second term because I offer the expertise and continuity that is so vital to an effective school board. As the only incumbent board member seeking re-election, I can provide the experience and leadership needed for the governing body of a complex, richly diverse district with over a $700 million dollar budget.” Bates is an IT professional at the University of Minnesota, taught writing and history at the U, including working in General College and the UM Upward Bound program. “I was a family advocate at HeadStart, and I am getting a MEd in Learning Technologies. My partner and I have three children, one graduate and two South High students. I love our city and I love this work, I am good at it, and I am asking the voters to support me for a second term.”

What is the biggest challenge to success in public education and what would you advise the district to do about it?

In North: “As with every part of the city, the North side has a very diverse community who all want one thing from our schools – an engaging and rigorous education for their children. To achieve this, MPS must address the needs of the different communities and the individual needs of the students in those communities. The district has been working very deliberately to offer families good educational options for their children – so families do not feel as if they need to leave their community for a good education.”

“Some examples of right directions include the New North High opening this fall which is the result of a very close working relationship with the community, the opening of Minneapolis College Preparatory, reconfiguring Olson and Lind, partnering with organizations to work with families in a number of Northside schools, the real successes happening at Nellie Stone, the evolving work at Hmong International Academy, and, of course, continuing to support Henry.”

Bates added, “Our district must continue to develop solid cultural competencies across our diverse communities. We do so by listening and engaging to the best of our abilities.”

“Northeast Minneapolis must have a strong, sustainable pk-12 option that includes a solid early childhood program and a robust high school. It is clear that Northeast Minneapolis is in the midst of a renaissance and many young families are choosing Northeast Minneapolis pk-8 schools; the success of Northeast Middle School is a cornerstone of this growth. The district must continue to build on these success by making a commitment to improve early childhood options in Northeast and by continuing to build Edison into a school that is considered to be the obvious choice for Northeast families. We do so by working with families and by offering rigorous academics and vibrant extra-curricular activities,” Bates said.

What are you most proud of in the Minneapolis Public Schools system?

“We are an extraordinarily diverse school community while also being of a size that does not overwhelm the ability of the “bureaucracy” to listen and respond to the unique needs of communities. The agreement the district has to work with the Metro Urban Indian Directors (MUID) is one example of our district getting it right in terms of school and community partnerships. And, oh yes, we have a long, long way to go with MUID and others, but we are seeing a reinvestment in our schools and we are working hard to re-gain the respect of all communities in Minneapolis.”

Janice May Harmon

At 40, this is Harmon’s first try at office, assisted by her husband Bernard Paul Harmon and the Independence Party. She counts among her credentials raising her 16-year-old daughter Frances Rose Ashwood and her stepchildren Bernie, Joey, Dessa, Tayshaw, John, Rachel, Abby and Aaron. She is employed at the StarTribune as a mailer and said she is a lady Teamster.

Her daughter graduated at 15 from Sadler Arts Academy in Oklahoma and is doing further schooling by computer.

The biggest challenge to success in both Northeast and North Minneapolis public education, the Harmons answered, is “getting the kids to come to school and stay in school,” and the district needs to “invest in teachers that inspire our students,” the Harmons said.

What makes Janice Harmon most proud about the Minneapolis district is “seeing our kids graduate and walk down the aisles with diplomas. It opens the doors to go to college and jobs. It’s the best education in the world.”

She said her dad was a teacher and “I want him to smile down upon me and see what we are trying to do for our kids.”

Doug Mann

Doug Mann, a nurse, has “run in every election cycle since 1999, seriously since 2001. I got [past the primary and] onto the general ballot in 2002, 2006, and 2008.” He said he has endorsements from the Green Party and the Democratic Socialists of America. “I’ve studied a lot of issues, the history of public education, curriculum issues, advocacy work, and I am familiar with district policies and have seen lots of school board meetings.” He was on the NAACP advocacy committees and was a plaintiff in the NAACP lawsuit that resulted in The Choice Is Yours busing to suburban schools. He was in the now-defunct Parent’s Union with Evelyn Eubanks. He knows seven languages in addition to English, according to his Facebook page.

The biggest challenge to success of public education in North Minneapolis is the fact that in 2010 fewer than 30 percent of students residing there were enrolled in “regular” public schools. The rest go to primarily charter, alternative, or suburban schools. With the district now promoting Eric Mahmoud’s charters, they plan to add 3,000 more seats, he said, targeting Near North. “They are accomplishing Dave Jennings plan in 2003 to get out of educating kids in poor areas.”

He said the district is giving African Americans and American Indians inferior education because of high teacher turnover, inexperience, and “ability grouping curriculum tracking” – dumbing down expectations rather than instructing “based on college-bound curriculum.” He said the district systematically fires and replaces teachers before they can reach the end of their three-year probation. “It’s cost containment and it’s done in all urban systems in the U.S.”

“In Northeast, pretty much the same issues apply,” Mann said. “Northeast is more of a mixed bag, some of the schools being fairly decent, others not so much, it hasn’t deteriorated as much as the Northside.” Mann elaborated on his concerns about the number of non-regular public schools attracting students. Not only do they deprive the “regular” schools of the state per-pupil funding and other monies that come with the students, but he said the schools the students choose get less money than they would have had if the students went to regular public schools.

The pride of the district is in a number of strong schools, Mann said, for example Clara Barton Open School where there is “no curriculum tracking. There are lots of kids in the gifted and talented program and higher track classes based on the state curriculum. The most highly qualified teachers are using enrichment methods and are more skilled at evaluating students and accommodating them on a one to one basis.” The district has a large segment that are performing, doing well on test scores, and receiving a world class education. “It could be replicated, there has to be the will to do it.”

Willis Trueblood did not respond to NorthNews phone calls.