Unsafe neighborhoods drive students from public schools


“We’ve been pulling the district and the community together over the past several months. We began to lay groundwork for restructuring the school district. We’ve begun to make decisions on reapportionment and setting into place accountability measures that transform the educational experiences of kids in Minneapolis Public Schools,” said MPS Superintendent Bill Green.

Dr. Bill Green discussed the state of affairs in Minneapolis Public Schools in a Conversations with Al McFarlane broadcast interview in late April. The interview was conducted live at Midtown Global Market on Lake Street.

The program resumes broadcasts from the Global Market on July 2nd when it launches its 20007/08 Public Policy Forum season with 11:00 a.m. Tuesday broadcasts. The program is open and free to the public.

“An increasing number of our children experience lives that are more complex than they were ten years ago,” Green continued, “which in turn creates a greater challenge for education. We’ve seen some major improvements in accountability, aligning curriculum for both standards and also for grade level.”

“The plan is that when a child finishes kindergarten [he] is prepared to achieve in first through third grades; in the third grade the child should have the foundation to do well in fourth to sixth . . . We’re creating a budget that reflects a vision of the academic plan. We want that budget to read like a book. We want that budget to reflect the values and priorities of the Minneapolis Public Schools. Middle grade reform is so critical . . . because that is the time when we lose a lot of our kids. If we’re really serious about improving the middle grades educational experience for kids, we have to have dollars and cents assigned to that area that goes to teacher development, stability in the schools, stronger principal leadership skills. This is something that we didn’t do before,” Green added.

Minneapolis Public Schools in recent years has experienced huge decreases in the number of students. Asked to explain the meaning and impact of dwindling enrollment, Green said, “We have many customers. Our most important customer is the student. The parents, the larger community, even those people in the community who don’t have kids in the public schools are the customers of Minneapolis Public Schools. If we don’t succeed, it threatens not only the vitality of Minneapolis, but also this entire region.”
Green laid responsibility of some parent/student flight at the doorstep of the political institutions charged with creating and maintaining public safety; making neighborhoods safe enough for children to walk to school.

“Some of our customers have left. They voted with their feet,” Green observed, “But some of our customers leave for non-educational reasons. For example, we’ve seen the greatest decrease of student enrollment on the Northside. That is in part because of the transportation issue. We can’t provide transportation to kids who live within a mile of the school. That had not been the policy. We changed that. But in a community where the streets are sometimes very dangerous, parents choose, understandably, not to have their child walk those streets. It’s not that they feel that once the child gets to school, they’re not going to have an educational experience or experience a safe environment. It’s that getting to school is a threat. So we’re required to provide door-to-door transportation. We’re trying to change that process right now so that we can provide security for kids so that they can get to school.”

Black parents have long charged that the district has been insensitive and non-responsive.

“That’s a very real perception,” Green said. “People do think that the institution is more disrespectful to African American parents. And it’s something that we’re taking very seriously. Historically, just going back ten years . . . whenever the institution confronted African American parents, it was usually in a hostile situation. There is an inclination tighten up, close ranks. Part of the transformation of the district is to open up. It is difficult and challenging.”

Green continued, “I work to encourage my colleagues to be open. We are doing things in different ways, one of which is not waiting for a crisis to hit before we interact with parents on the Northside. We go out into the community, spend time in the streets, spend time in the places where parents congregate. We meet with parents on an ongoing basis at the schools or wherever they want to meet us.”

“Public education, historically, was the institution that created the middle class,” Green said. “It was a place where people who had come to the country (or who lived in the country) illiterate, could receive an education without having to pay for it. Education before then had been limited to those who had the resources.”

“Public education means that everybody gets the opportunity to learn. In the wake of the Civil War, when missionaries and abolitionists moved to the South to educate the freed men and women, they found that former slaves had already begun schools. If there was a slave on the plantation . . . who had learned to read, even before the missionaries moved to the South, former slaves were teaching their kids, and often at great risk. Even though the war had been won by the ‘good guys,’ there were still forces of reaction to seeing African Americans receive any kind of education. It frustrated a lot of missionaries who came down there because they felt that they were the ones who were delivering the gift,” Green said.
“The point that I’m making is that that is an example of how committed the parents were to providing education to their kids, giving everything they had, including their own security, to finding that one person who could teach their child to read, who could teach their child to compute,” Green continued. “That is very much our legacy, and there are all kinds of stories, even prior to the Civil War, where slaves learned to read and write at great personal risk. This all leads to the point that, and I think this is a very interesting point, for me at least as a historian, and as a person from the Deep South; that it was really the freed men and women who pushed for and established this thing that historians refer to as universal education. That is to say that you didn’t find the same levels of pressure being applied to the poor whites that lived in the South. They felt an interest in the status quo, which was to continue slavery. But as a result of this work of these former slaves, who were teaching, who were not just interested in providing for their kids ultimately, but a society that valued education, that poor whites also benefited from that spirit.”
Joe Nathan runs the Center for School Change at the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey Institute. He responded to questions regarding the impact of the growing charter school movement on traditional public or universal education, as described by Dr. Green.

“There comes a time when people rise up, so deeply frustrated with an institution, they look for other ways to operate,” Nathan said. “And one of the things that the charter school movement has done is to empower African American and Native American educators to create the kind of schools that make sense. Now I want to make clear that we want to work very closely with the district, in fact we’ve recently concluded an agreement; and I want to pay tribute to this superintendent, because for the last five years the Humphrey Institute has been saying that we’d be glad to do research for free with our graduate students, and this is the first superintendent in five years who has taken us up on that. I think it’s important for the community to know that. The Center for School Change is not an advocate for charter public schools or district public schools; we’re an advocate of excellent public education. And when we think about history, it’s important to know that Rosa Parks, in the last decade of her life, tried to set up charters. It’s important to know that African American women in Topeka, Kansas today are trying to set up charter public schools because of their frustration with the district. They’re trying to set up a school in the very building that Linda Brown was denied access to, that led to the Brown vs. Board of Education U.S. Supreme Court case. So there’s a lot of history of people rising up.”

Both charter school proponents and school district managers are looking at collective bargaining agreements between the district and the teachers’ union to see what impact the interests of workers, the teachers, have on the interests of learners, the students.
For Superintendent Green the priority is clear: “Everything we do has to be decided along the lines of what is best for the student. It may surprise some of the listeners here, but we are foolish, as an institution, if we view the charters as the enemy. Because the fact of the matter is that the whole charter movement was created to make public education better. The charters could do certain things, experiment with certain things, and it is our responsibility as a public institution to learn from what they’re doing.”

“One of the things that they do very well is to be responsive to the parents and to nurture them,” Green added. “We see that and are embedding that into our program. The other thing that they do very well is, because of their statutory position, to select the teachers that they want. We have to work harder to negotiate a contract that allows us to get the best teacher with the best fit for the programs. That’s one of the things that we’ve learned.”

“That is something that teachers want too. Teachers say, ‘Look, we’re creating a learning environment that can be threatened if seniority forces us to break up our team.’ So we have teachers who are also interested in finding a way to be creative and stabilize the teacher core in schools that seem to be working well,” Green concluded.