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Minneapolis Panel Drops Choice Plan, Wary of Experimental Middle School

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The Minneapolis board of education has voted to reject an ambitious plan that would have guaranteed parents their first choice among the variety of educational programs offered in the district.

The plan, developed at the board's request by Superintendent Robert Ferrera, ran into opposition because it would have allowed administrators to assign students to any school offering the chosen program, school officials and board members said.

Many parents commenting on the plan considered a school's location, facilities, leadership, and staff to be factors that influence their school choices as much as the type of program offered, they said.

The board instead voted last month to expand or replicate some of the programs that have proven the most popular with parents and traditionally have long waiting lists of students wishing to attend.

The political pressure caused by the shortage of spaces in these schools was a major impetus behind the development of the new plan, as was the need to reopen old facilities to accomodate surging elementary enrollments.

Minority advocates also questioned whether the plan would hinder the district's efforts to desegregate its schools, because certain nontraditional programs have had difficulty attracting a representative share of the district's minority student population.

In addition, minorities make up a disproportionate share of the two-thirds of the district's parents who have not availed themselves of the choices now offered.

Currently, district administrators assign students who have not chosen a school to the "contemporary" or "continuous progress" school nearest to their home, because these programs are the most similar to traditional models of schooling.

In an effort to increase student integration under the current system, the board voted to allow district officials to assign those students who do not make a selection to any type of educational program near to their home where their placement would promote integration. In the future, such students could also be placed in fundamental, open, or Montessori-type programs.

In addition, the board voted to redouble its efforts to encourage all parents to choose a school.

The defeated plan would also have allowed the district to move to a uniform grade structure for elementary and middle schools. The current system has a variety of grade structures to accomodate pairing between schools to promote integration.

The proposed plan would have required district officials to maintain racially balanced schools through the student selection and assignment process.

The Minneapolis board has also begun to express doubts about an8other proposal for an innovative new middle school that would combine academics with real-life experience.

Board members were scheduled to vote this week on the proposal for the school, which proponents hoped to open by next fall.

Known as the Chiron School, the middle school would have no fixed site; students would attend classes on a rotating basis at sites throughout the community, such as hospitals, nature centers, and government buildings.

The concept for the school grew out of an unusual competition sponsored last year by local community and business leaders, who offered up to $6,000 for a winning idea. Private contibutors have already agreed to donate more than $200,000 to the pilot project.

But at meetings last week, school-board members for the first time raised serious concerns about how the new school would be managed.

Under the proposal, management decisions would initially be made by a council composed of members of the committee that sponsored the competition and helped develop the proposal. Eventually, the membership of the council would switch to parents and teachers, committee members said.

"I'm enough of a realist to know that there are a lot of practical issues and budget issues going on," with the school board, said Ray Harris, the businessman who spearheaded the effort. "But I don't think anyone on the board is saying that it's a bad idea."ws & dv

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