Published Online: October 4, 2011
Published in Print: October 5, 2011, as School Boundary Debate Divides Minn. Suburb

School Boundary Plan Divides Minn. Suburb

Sophia Yusuf and Sam Whittemore check out a math assignment on an interactive whiteboard in Eden Prairie, Minn., where tensions have arisen over school zones. The controversy comes amid increased diversity, including an influx of Somali students.
—Courtney Perry for Education Week

Eden Prairie schools struggle for socioeconomic balance

Changing the school attendance boundaries that parents come to depend on is a reliable source of community discontent, even when the process can’t be avoided.

But even in that context, the boundary debate in the 9,700-student Eden Prairie, Minn., district has been bruising.

Eden Prairie adopted new school attendance boundaries this year based on socioeconomic balance, ensuring for now that no elementary school will have more than about 25 percent of students who are eligible for subsidized lunches. The district has seen an influx of immigrants from Somalia, who before the boundary changes were clustered at one elementary school because of nearby affordable housing.

The changes, which moved about 1,100 students, provoked sustained and vociferous opposition from more well-off parents in a series of public hearings last year. Accusations of racism, forced busing, and social engineering flew. At the end of it all, Superintendent Melissa Krull, who pushed for the changes, took an early buyout of her contract and left in September after 10 years leading the district and 28 years total working in Eden Prairie schools.

Though more bitter than most, the struggle here echoes others taking place in districts around the country—especially in suburban areas that have never had to confront such racial and economic diversity before. As suburban districts grow more heterogeneous, school leaders are wrestling with how to equitably provide services to students with a variety of needs and backgrounds without alienating other groups in the process.

And they’re attempting to do it with one less arrow in their quiver since the U.S. Supreme Court knocked down race-based student-assignment policies.

“The country isn’t going to get less diverse, and certainly [this issue has] spread well beyond cities,” said Michael J. Alves, a Milton, Mass.-based consultant on school boundaries. “The challenge is how can you make all that change in a way that will be politically acceptable?”

Demographic Shift

In Eden Prairie, a knot of discontented parents have removed their children from the district, taking advantage of Minnesota’s open-enrollment policy to place them in neighboring districts. Though official numbers from the state have not yet been compiled, a spokeswoman for the neighboring Minnetonka district said that as of late last week, 278 students from Eden Prairie have switched to that district, up from 162 last year.

Similar issues have arisen in Wake County, N.C., where Mr. Alves was invited by business leaders to help quell a controversy that broke out last year when that district’s school board voted to scrap a long-running boundary policy that bused students based on socioeconomic status. ("N.C. District Moves Away From Promoting Diversity," April 7, 2010.)

Eden Prairie, about 18 miles southwest of downtown Minneapolis, might appear to be an unlikely location for any social problems. The compact community, which measures about 6 miles by 6 miles and is filled with lakes and parks, has often appeared on Money magazine’s list of “best places to live,” taking the top spot in 2010. Ninety-five percent of its high school graduates go on to two- or four-year colleges, according to district statistics based on the class of 2009.

But the district’s demographics are also changing. It is about 75 percent white, 11 percent black, 10 percent Asian, and 4 percent Hispanic. About 5 percent of its students speak a language other than English at home, and of those, 55 percent speak Somali. Minnesota has become a popular settling place for immigrants from Somalia, who are drawn to the state’s job opportunities and immigrant services after fleeing the violence in their East African home country.

Melissa Krull looks over the shoulder of 3rd grader Samia Osman at Forest Hills Elementary School during her last week as superintendent of the Eden Prairie district.
—Courtney Perry for Education Week

About 13 percent of the district’s students are eligible for free or reduced-price lunches, but the concentration of those students ranged from more than 40 percent at the least-affluent elementary school to 9 percent at the most affluent school before the boundary changes.

Besides creating socioeconomic balance, the district wanted to use the boundary changes to reduce the number of school transitions students had to make over their school career. Before the new plan, Eden Prairie had an idiosyncratic school setup where neighborhood elementary schools held students in grades K-4, another school brought all the district’s students together for 5th and 6th grades, and a third school housed 7th and 8th graders. Then all the students attend the district’s lone high school.

Through the boundary changes, every elementary school became a K-6 school. The intermediate school and high school were unchanged. The boundary plan also balanced enrollment so that underutilized schools could gain more students.

The boundary process would keep the district’s strong academic performance going, without allowing any one school to tip into academic difficulty, said Ms. Krull, the former superintendent. “I’m very proud of what happened here,” she said. “I don’t think I was hired to be popular. I was hired to do what’s best for kids.”

The district sought legal assistance from Myron Orfield, a law professor and the executive director of the Institute on Race and Poverty at the University of Minnesota—Twin Cities.

Mr. Orfield was asked to weigh in on the legality of the new plan. School districts have been prohibited from using race explicitly to assign students to public schools since a 2007 Supreme Court decision involving the Seattle and Jefferson County, Ky., school districts. ("Use of Race Uncertain for Schools," July 18, 2007.)

Asad Aliweyd, an Eden Prairie resident, a former high school math teacher, and the founder of a community-outreach group that provides academic help to immigrant students, said he supported the changed boundaries.

“The more diverse the classroom is, the more the ideas flourish,” said Mr. Aliweyd, who has lived in Eden Prairie since arriving from Somalia in 1997.

Tensions Rise

Opposition to the plan sprang up almost immediately, however. Parents such as Amy Jore and Nancy Frischmon were concerned that the district was wasting money, disrupting neighborhoods, and making students ride buses when there were elementary schools nearby. They said the district also didn’t seem to have a plan to carry on with popular programs or to deal with students with intensive needs at all the schools.

And then the debate took on a racial component, Ms. Jore said. “Very quickly, anyone who opposed the plan was labeled ‘entitled parents who wanted their own way.’ Then we were racists; we didn’t want our kids going to school with those kids. Or we were afraid of change. This divide was created in our community,” she said.

But parents weren’t the only ones who felt attacked. “I tried to testify on the benefits of integration, and I got booed. It got pretty ugly,” Mr. Orfield said.

Ms. Frischmon said that if the community had known that a less-affluent elementary school needed more resources or volunteers, parents from other schools would have gladly provided more help. But the community was never given a chance to develop its own solutions, she said, and spreading poor students out among different schools is simply diluting the problem.

“If I were black, if I were poor, I would say, why can’t you keep that progress going?” Ms. Frischmon said.

Ms. Krull, the former superintendent, said that she and administrators did hear those concerns. “We listened. We made some adjustments to the plan. If it made sense, we used it,” she said. “At a certain point, though, it’s ‘did you listen to us, or did you agree with us?’ ”

The former superintendent said that in addition to moving students, the district has rolled out to all elementary schools some education practices and parent training opportunities that have been used successfully at the district’s less-affluent elementary schools.

Several studies have shown that children from poor families attending more-affluent schools do actually perform better on tests than poor students attending schools that are predominantly poor. Though achievement gaps persist, the hypothesis is that more-affluent schools get better teachers, have more parent involvement, and have fewer discipline problems.

One studyRequires Adobe Acrobat Reader, conducted by the progressive Century Foundation in Washington, looked at students eligible for free and reduced-price lunches in the 144,000-student Montgomery County, Md., district. The generally well-to-do county has pockets of poverty, and the district poured resources into the schools in those areas. The county also provides housing vouchers that allow some poor families to move to better-off areas.

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The study examined the test scores of the two groups of poor students—those who stayed in their low-income areas and those whose families moved—and found that those who attended “moderate poverty” schools outperformed their peers in “high poverty” schools, even though the poorer schools received more money from the county.

The effects in Montgomery County accrued over time, with less-affluent students in lower-poverty schools eventually cutting the achievement gap with their more-affluent classmates by one-half in math and one-third in reading. The effects diminished once a school’s poverty rate reached 35 percent.

The way many school districts have handled concentrated pockets of poverty is to create a choice-based boundary plan, in which parents across a district are given options that might entice them to one school or another. The plan that Mr. Alves developed for Wake County offers some parent choice instead of hard attendance boundaries, and though the district has not adopted that plan wholesale, it is using elements of that philosophy. Similar plans are in place in the Cambridge, Mass., and Champaign, Ill. school districts.

Ms. Krull said a choice-based plan would have meant moving a “disproportionately high” number of students of color. Also, she said, “we felt that whatever choice option we thought would be good for some, would be right for all.”

But providing options is one way to get around the fierce resistance to boundary changes, Mr. Alves said. The path Eden Prairie chose, which was to make mandatory changes, was guaranteed to be unpopular, he said.

“One of the lessons learned in the last 40 or 50 years of school integration is that middle-class families will be more accepting of integration if they’re given a positive incentive,” said Richard D. Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation. “You don’t need everyone to move. You just need a subset of parents to move beyond their local boundaries.”

Vol. 31, Issue 06, Pages 1,11

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