A school needs three things to succeed, according to Minneapolis Public School board member Tom Madden. ‘You need a strong principal, who can unite the teaching teams. You need district support. You need a group of parents to come en masse and talk about what they need for their children.’
He, other board members and school district staff are working on ways to overhaul the city’s public high schools, he said.
“We’re going to be looking at everything. For instance, we’ll be looking at the offerings for earning college credits in the classroom. We’ll be looking at SLCs (small learning communities); how many we need and what they should be. We have some SLCs that people line up for, and another 19 or 20 that they don’t. Perhaps we offer more than we can afford.”
The board will look at everything holistically before they make changes, instead, he said, “of applying the traditional band-aid solutions.”
Earlier this year, the district assembled a strategic planning team. Aided by consultants McKinsey and Company, they studied student enrollment and achievement, district operations, revenue sources and uses, and the community’s perception of the school. They also studied school districts in other states.
The strategic planning team’s report (which they presented to the school board Sept. 25), predicts a $96 million shortfall over the next four years. Student enrollment, they said, has been falling for the past six years and will continue to decline.
Madden said there are 12,500 MPS high school students this year; in four years that number is projected to drop to 8,500.
“This isn’t because 4,000 kids are leaving and going to different schools,” he added. “This is because of the overall population decline of people in the city.” There are fewer students in the “feeder” middle and elementary schools who will enter high school in the next four years, he said. “We were at this point more than a dozen years ago; the only reason we didn’t realize it was because we had a massive influx of immigrants. After 9/11, the immigration stopped. Arguably, the school population has [actually] been declining for 16 years.
“Competition from charter and parochial schools continues to be a problem for us,” Madden said. “But now we’re also seeing that many charter schools are not doing any better than we are, and in some cases they’re doing worse. The idea that they were the answer wasn’t true. We’ve all got bigger problems, and it’s not necessarily the schools that are at fault.”
The team also found that although the graduation rate has increased in the last two years, low overall student achievement and “uneven” achievement among schools and students, particularly students of color, continues to be a challenge.
Some parents who left the district told the strategic planning team that they had taken their children out of MPS because the learning environment included behavior problems, safety concerns, and inadequate academic rigor. They were concerned about the district’s ability to deliver quality education in the future.
However, parents who said they were satisfied with MPS cited high expectations, quality teachers, and families active in their students’ education.
Madden said the discussions on high school reform have already begun. “The district is talking about possible ideas, and there is a current focus on rigor.”
Madden said the teams’ findings didn’t surprise him, and probably didn’t surprise many other people. “The difference is that now we’re not going off of hunches. We’re going off of research.”
According to a recent MPS press release, the strategic planning team will bring their recommendations to the school board for discussion Nov. 6. When (and if) the school board adopts some or all of the team’s recommendations, they will be phased in over several years.
Brenda Casselius, the associate Minneapolis Public Schools superintendent of Area B, (which includes St. Anthony West, St. Anthony East, and Beltrami neighborhoods in Northeast) said she is responsible for the high school plan, which she and chief academic officer Bernadeia Johnson will present to the school board Oct. 23.
She said problems at the secondary level include an achievement gap (between white and minority students), the number of drop outs, and the number of students who leave high school without the skills they need for college, other post-secondary education, or the work force.
“There is a national urgency around that,” Casselius said. “We want students to be successful in post secondary endeavors, whether it is college, the military, a job or vocational school. We want to recapture our students and get them excited about learning.”
She said things that have been proven to work in other schools around the nation include increasing academic rigor, increasing participation with colleges and universities, and energizing the community. Students need personalized, inno- vative support, and teachers need high-quality professional development training.
“We judge students’ success by their ACT scores and MCA [state test] scores, especially their proficiency in math. If the drop out rates are down, graduation rates are up, students are being engaged and participating in an academically-rich environment at their schools, that’s success,” Casselius said.
For information about the school district or the strategic planning process, go to www.mpls.k12.mn.us.