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Published in Print: June 3, 1998, as Protesters Derail Minneapolis Board Meeting

Protesters Derail Minneapolis Board Meeting

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About 100 protesters and angry parents led by local officials of the NAACP stormed the Minneapolis school board's final meeting of the year last week, prompting board members to leave the meeting with their business unfinished.

Demonstrations centered around chronically poor minority achievement and what protesters claim is a return to racial segregation in the 49,000-student district have disrupted several recent board meetings. The outbursts prompted board members to summon local police to maintain order at the May 26 session.

Before the meeting, a racially mixed group gathered outside the district's headquarters for what the participants called a "picnic and protest." They made speeches, shouted chants, and waved placards.

The heated and often tense atmosphere has become familiar here in recent months.

Since February, members of the Minneapolis chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People have been turning out in force at board meetings. At the heart of their protest is the school board's return to a system of community schools as a departure from enrollment guidelines called for under state desegregation guidelines.

In a district that is about 70 percent minority, the protesters say the plan marks a return to segregation, and they have taken the district to task for what they see as its weak record in educating minority students.

In recent weeks, however, the protests against the seven-member board have broadened to a wide range of issues, from charges of outright racism to complaints about a lack of school supplies and materials. Four of the board members are white; three are black.

Racism Charged

After the board members left last week's meeting, the demonstrators remained. "There are people here who have something to say," shouted John Schulman, a lawyer for the NAACP who organized the gathering. "Let's have our own school board meeting," added Mr. Schulman, who is white.

"Why is the school board running away?" Tamrat Tademe, a professor of multicultural education at St. Cloud State University, demanded to know, as security officers looked on. "I'm sick of seeing students in my classrooms who are the victims of racist curriculum. We need a multicultural, high-standards system."

As the disaffection with the community schools plan and the school board itself has grown, board members and district administrators have insisted that the plan does not pose a barrier to high achievement.

They say they are as committed to improving achievement as anyone. But they argue that it will take time for new state standards, a host of extracurricular programs, and their new superintendent, Carol Johnson, to begin to turn things around.

"We all share the same goal" of high achievement, Ms. Johnson, the district's first black chief executive, said last week. "We're targeting low-achieving students."

And community schools, the district argues, are drawing parents into their children's education. "Look at the causes of low achievement. They are unrelated to community schools," said Mary Pattock, the district's director of communications.

"Schools here are functioning as the center of communities," she added. "They offer tutoring, adult education programs, health clinics, recreation. And parents and students can more easily take advantage of all this if they live close to schools."

Achievement Woes

Despite the district's efforts, the performance of minority students in Minneapolis--the state's largest and most racially diverse district--remains abysmal.

Some 76 percent of black 8th graders failed the state's basic-skills test in reading, and 79 percent failed the math portion in the current school year. District leaders note that that figure is an improvement over the 85 percent failure rates for both portions of the test last year.

By comparison, though, only 28 percent of the district's white 8th graders failed the math and reading tests this year.

"The state is the owner of the dog, and the dog is biting the kids," Mr. Schulman said in an interview. "Whether it's hypersegregation in the form of community schools, disciplinary programs, mismanagement, or general low expectations, schools are failing kids."

The community schools plan gives students the option of applying to a magnet school or other specialized program, or attending the school closest to their homes. The plan stems from efforts by the district to free itself from state desegregation guidelines, which require each school's minority enrollment to be within 15 percentage points of the district's overall minority makeup. The state gave its official green light to the plan in March 1996.

The Minneapolis NAACP has filed two lawsuits against the state.

The first suit, filed on behalf of six families in September 1995, charges that state policies have caused Minneapolis schools to be heavily segregated by race and social class, denying students an adequate education. ("Suit Seeks Minn. Backing of Desegregation Plan," Oct. 4, 1995.)

The second, filed in February, argues that the community schools plan has aggravated schools' problems.

But Robert J. Wedl, the commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Children, Families, and Learning, said he is confident the state is providing Minneapolis schools the tools they need.

"Significant new resources have been provided to urban schools--especially since after the lawsuit was filed--targeting kids with the greatest need," he said. He added that the community schools plan will help reduce the achievement gap between white and minority students.

"We need to see improvements," Mr. Wedl said, "and we're providing resources to make that happen."

Growing Cacophony

Such sentiments were largely lost on the protesters who gathered here last week. Many carried colorful posters with such slogans as: "Rescind the Community Schools Plan," "Down With Segregation," and "I Need a Better Education. Help Me."

"This system pushes a certain segment of children down," said Evelyn V. Eubanks, an outspoken former PTA member who has home-schooled her five children for the past several years. "Community schools do not serve students."

Board members at first sought to ignore the demonstration as they went on with their business: a retiring teacher was commended, a new middle school program was unveiled, cookies and lemonade were passed around.

But the growing cacophony ultimately won out as board members adjourned early, and, under the guidance of plainclothes police officers, slipped out the back door.

Vol. 17, Issue 38, Page 3

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