Administrator: “We needed to get the money from somewhere.”
Big changes are coming this fall for about 1,800 children who live on the North Side of Minneapolis. Because the school district has closed five elementary schools, the children will travel longer distances to meet new classmates and teachers in unfamiliar surroundings.
Minneapolis school administrators say the closings, combined with more course offerings and other improvements, will result in better education for these children and other North Side pupils. If this proves true, the program could close at least some of the achievement gap between white and minority students.
But some community leaders and many parents disagree with the school administrators. They say the plan was hastily drafted with almost no input from parents, and the rationale for closing specific schools was weak.
The project, called the North Side Initiative, includes the closing of W. Harry Davis Academy and four other elementary schools – Jordan Park, Lincoln, North Star and Shingle Creek. The students will attend other schools on the North Side, the northwest quadrant of the city. The initiative covers the area north of Glenwood Avenue and west of Interstate 94.
The School District estimates that it will save $3 million during the 2007-2008 school year by closing the five buildings. At least $2 million will be spent on additional programs and services in North Side schools, mostly elementary schools. A large portion of the remaining estimated savings will pay for expanded busing that will increase school choices for North Side parents and children.
“The community was asking us to do something,” said Bernadeia Johnson, chief academic officer for the Minneapolis Public Schools. “We needed to get the money from somewhere.”
“It’s all about the students, and it will strengthen schools,” said Ben Perry, director of the North Side Initiative. “We are trying to have quality, world-class schools.”
Nearly all of the children who attended the five schools come from poor families, are members of racial minorities, or both. More than 90 percent of the students at each of the schools qualified for free or reduced-price lunches during the 2006-2007 school year.
“We move these children around like chips,” said Chris Stewart, the only Minneapolis Board of Education member who voted against the initiative. “This puts kids through things middle class families would not tolerate. I don’t see the possibility of success as this is planned.”
In comparison with white students, a larger percentage of minority children have low scores on standardized math and reading tests, and a bigger proportion do not graduate from high school in four years. Minority students are less likely to go to college and more likely to be in special education classes. In the Minneapolis public schools, all of this is especially true for Black and Native American children.
North Side parents are “politically disconnected,” Stewart said, and educators don’t listen to them but instead tell them what is good for their children. He said he doesn’t object to closing schools, but all options should have been on the table and discussed at length with the community.
Johnson disputed the idea that parents’ opinions were ignored. There were many meetings beginning early this year at schools and at homes of parents, she said. “These were not over a long period, but the schedule was very intense and aggressive.”
However, some meetings were held before the district proposed a list of schools to be closed. Stewart said that there was only one public hearing at which parents could speak after the specific closings were proposed and before the Board of Education approved the plan in April.