OPINION | Southwest school scuffle

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Earlier this year, the Minneapolis School Board and District, largely in response to falling revenues and declining enrollment, began to look at the ways that offering parents options in education played out across the district. The guidelines of the process are posted on the MPS Web site under Changing School Options.

One goal of the process is to make sure that every area will have a local community school, but how that might look is not decided – some schools will be closed and area lines will be redrawn. Change is coming and change can be scary, but the school board has repeatedly voiced the goal that in the process, they should do no harm.

A small but organized and vocal group of parents, however, has used the CSO process as a stone upon which to grind their pet project, creating a community school for the Kingfield neighborhood in the site that is now occupied by the Clara Barton Open School. The 800 Barton students would be combined with the Ramsey and Lyndale programs in a mega-duel campus school.

On May 5th the Minneapolis School District presented a CSO plan to the school board that did not include this mega duel campus proposal. Citing this lack, and other short comings, the School Board asked the District to go back, look at all options again, specifically asking the district to look at the Mega-School option the group of Kingfield parents were pushing.

The Mega-School plan sounds reasonable on the surface – the highly successful and sought after Barton program would be in a larger building, and therefore able to serve more people. The plan, on its surface, would increase diversity in the Barton program. But the entire program depends on one key assumption – that the Barton program could be moved, and nearly doubled in size, and still be able to provide the quality of education it has in the past. It also assumes that the Lyndale and Ramsey programs could weather the same storm. There is no evidence to support this claim, and much research to suggest that such a disruption would be very risky, expensive and disruptive.

One of the main problems the district faces is declining enrollments due to people choosing charter schools or private schools. The school board is risking much when it disrupts two very successful programs, the Lyndale School, which provides a high level of academic excellence to a large English Language Learner (ELL) and free and reduced lunch population, and the Barton Open program.

The Mega-School plan is not the plan favored by education experts. Many education professionals understand that Open School programs particularly are sensitive to scale. Size does matter.

The Mega-School plan is complex and needlessly disruptive – setting in motion thousands of students at three schools, and risking the educational excellence of high performing schools that are providing education to students most at risk.

The potential benefits of the Mega-School plan will be found in the future. It will be years if ever before the new community school started at the Barton site will be able to achieve the same level of excellence, and years before the Barton/Lyndale/Ramsey programs can recover from the shock of such a major reorganization.

The Mega-School program is expensive and excessive – there are cheaper plans that will still create a community school for the Kingfield neighborhood. Barton school, early in the CSO process, proposed increasing its ELL population and increasing its economic and racial diversity while opening more spots for community residents.

The Lyndale School also had a proposal. Lyndale is actually the closest school to the current boundaries of the Kingfield neighborhood and is the most logical choice as a community school for those families. In June they invited the Mega-School proponents to tour their school. About twenty people attended, many of them Barton parents. In blog postings the Lyndale School has been rejected as a viable location for the Kingfield Community school because of “Crime rate and property values.”

Barton School is highly successful. This spring Cambridge Education gave Barton School the highest rating in the district in an external quality review. Test scores, while an incomplete measure of a schools ability to provide learning to students, still indicate that Barton is highly successful at meeting both the State’s and the Districts goals. Yet the Mega-School proposal labels this excellence as elitism in their quest to create a school for their neighborhood at the Barton site.

This group of parents is currently distributing petitions and calling people on the phone to ask them to back their plan. Lacking educational underpinnings for their proposal, they are seeking to use political means to their ends.

In mid-July the School Board and District will meet in a working session to look at all the various proposals. This has become a sort of target date. The debate is reaching a fevered pitch and these voices are threatening to drown out more rational and reasoned advocates for our kids.

Petitions and flyers are currently being circulated across much of South Minneapolis asking simply if parents support having another community school in the neighborhood. The petition does not mention that the school comes at a great cost to 3000 students and their families and three schools. It does not lay out all the risks and expenses involved, or the complications that our community commitment to providing school choice entails.

Before Lyndale, Ramsey and Barton are combined in a dual campus there should be compelling evidence that such a move is in the broad interests of the wider school district, not just in the interests of a few vocal advocates. All plans should be viewed and judged through the lens of academic excellence. Those who are interested should contact their school board members and urge them to support less risky, disruptive and unproven plans to meet the community school needs of the F2, (the designation for that part of southwest Minneapolis on school district maps) families. Open Education should remain a viable choice for Minneapolis families. The final plan to emerge should support those options that will better serve all Minneapolis families.

Jeff Forester is a member of the CARAG board, but these views are not necessarily the board’s views. His wife is a teacher at Barton School, their kids attend there and they all live in CARAG.

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