Minneapolis schools plan major changes in local, magnet schools

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Faced with a growing – and seemingly permanent – gap between revenues and finances, Minneapolis Public Schools is organizing meetings where parents and teachers are invited to give input into the district’s future. It’s not news that school politics and policy in the Twin Cities are less transparent than a brick wall, with precious few people trying to shed light on the goings-on in either district. But not everyone at one of Thursday night’s three community meetings was convinced MPS is trying to shed its old, top-down, bureaucratic ways as it looks to reorganize and shrink the number of elementary, middle, and high schools, and the complicated and expensive busing system.

“Community engagement is just an obligation for the district to fulfill,” said community activist and Ramsey Fine Arts Center parent Ralph Crowder, who was disappointed that the NOrthside meeting did not include a broader discussion of why poor students and students of color were not succeeding in the school system.

“People have a lot of suspicion that the community opinion might not sway what happens,” said David Allen, a contractor who works with the district’s Student Placement Center.

Your opportunities for input on the proposed changes

MPS has a presentation of the options on its website and a web option for feedback on the plan

The MPS calendar for implementation calls for:

February Gather Community Input on Scenarios

Week of March 9 Community meetings to share scenario impact

March 24 Administration recommends plan to the board

April 21 Board vote on plan

Fall 2010 Begin implementing changes

That may be why only 30 people showed up in the gym at the North Commons Recreation Center, to hear Deputy Superintendent Bernadiea Johnson describe MPS’ financial predicament and the various options.

Kate Towle, a prominent parent activist who attended the community meeting at St. Maron’s church in Northeast Minneapolis, said the other meetings were much better attended, but parents at both were distrustful of the school district’s motives. At the St. Maron’s meeting, Towle said, district officials emphasized that “we don’t want to lose you, we don’t want to lose your trust.”

“But they don’t realize that trust is built in the little things,” Towle explained, “like the flyers that said ‘Big Changes Coming’…[or] scheduling all the meetings on the same Thursday night, when many schools have meetings and events scheduled.”

The overall effect, Towle said, was to make parents believe the school district was trying to sneak changes past them. “I’ve been a parent in the district for 13 years, and I’m having a hard time selling it to my fellow Marcy parents…. Parents will not stay engaged if they feel like you’re pulling the wool over their eyes.”

Instead, Towle suggested the district involve parents through the grassroots network built during the campaign for the Strong Schools Strong City referendum, passed in November with 70% support.

Attendees were asked to list pros and cons for turning all elementary schools into community schools, serving only their neighborhood, for three different arrangements of magnet elementary and high schools, and for turning all high schools into community schools, each with the “Core Four” group of programs – Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate, College-in-the-Schools, and Career and Technical Education.

A large majority of the thirty people at the Northside meeting liked proposals that would make most elementary schools neighborhood schools, saying it would help parents get more involved in their schools, and it would help teachers better understand their students’ life situations. Discussions of various magnet options, though, quickly brought out concerns that students in different parts of the city have equal access to programs, and about the ability of parents who can’t afford a car to get their children to a distant magnet or a bus route.

Whether or not MPS ends up engaging its parents in the decision-making process, Superintendent Bill Green will be choosing a combination of the options presented last night on March 24, and the school board will vote to approve the plan on April 21.

James Sanna (james.sanna@gmail.com) is a freelance writer and an intern covering education issues for the Daily Planet.

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