Families & the Community

Minneapolis Sets ‘Covenant’ on Black Achievement

By Catherine Gewertz — September 23, 2008 4 min read
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The Minneapolis school board and the local African-American community have taken an unusual step toward healing fractured relations and improving schooling for black children by signing a “covenant” that places responsibility for improvement on the shoulders of parents and district leaders.

Capping a year of work, the agreement was adopted unanimously by the board on Sept. 9 and signed by its president and by representatives of two community groups that originated the idea and drove its development. The groups are the African American Mobilization for Education, or AAME, which is a coalition of local organizations, and the local YWCA.

The three-page agreement says education is a “shared responsibility,” and commits the district and the community to a decade of work “with a deliberate focus on African-American students in order to overcome a legacy of educational inequity.”

The district agreed to work with the AAME and other community groups to establish three model school sites with “stable teaching teams,” where best practices in offering a challenging curriculum, culturally responsive teaching, and effective parent involvement can be put into effect. Teams of parents, students, and community members at those schools will work with teachers and principals to develop programs.

A task force of parents, students, community members, and district employees, including teachers, will be set up to monitor districtwide implementation of the covenant.

Members of the school board and community groups that worked on the agreement see it as an important first step toward building a trusting, collaborative relationship so that the goals in the district’s 2007 strategic plan can be realized. Those include closing the achievement gap within five years, and erasing race as a predictor of academic success.

“It’s critical that we make peace with the African-American community, because we set such high goals that there is no way to achieve them without the support of the parents,” said board member Chris Stewart, who helped build support on the panel for the agreement.

Upcoming Referendum

Activists noted that the district could use the support of black parents on Nov. 4, when voters will decide on a referendum that would use $60 million from increased property taxes to support literacy and mathematics programs, class-size reduction, and other initiatives.

Nearly 40 percent of the Minneapolis district’s 35,700 students are African-American, but many of their parents have long complained of feeling disregarded in policy decisions and unwelcome in schools.

Their children are suspended at far higher rates than are white children, and graduate on time less often. Fewer than half score as proficient on state tests, compared with more than eight in 10 white students.

A 2007 report from the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities found that the Minneapolis district’s per-pupil general-fund spending on teacher salaries is lowest in schools with the highest concentrations of minority children.

Last spring, four schools were closed in the northern part of the city, which has the biggest concentration of black families. Anger in those neighborhoods ran high when the closings were decided with little public input.

“This covenant came out of the neglect of the concerns of the African-American community,” said Kinshasha Kambui, a community organizer who led development of the agreement, which was inspired by a 2006 agreement the district made with the Native-American community.

Rosilyn M. Carroll helped draft the covenant with a core group of activists, educators, and parents. They pored over disaggregated achievement data and researched what teaching practices appear to work especially well for African-American students.

Ms. Carroll said the agreement marks an important departure from a common school district position: deciding unilaterally what is best for its families.

“This one says, ‘If you would partner not just from your perspective, but from ours,’ ” said Ms. Carroll, the academic director of the Center for Excellence in Urban Teaching, at Hamline University in St. Paul. “That’s the difference. It’s not just the district’s perspective; it’s from the black-parent community.”

BRIC ARCHIVE

Eleanor T. Coleman, who is the district’s point person on community and corporate partnerships, said the district’s success in building understanding with parents and activists has suffered in recent years with multiple turnovers of leadership in the superintendency and departmental offices. But she sees a smoother road ahead for implementation of the covenant under the current district administration, led by William D. Green, the superintendent since 2006.

The district will now broker conversations aimed at designing an “action plan” defining just what the district and the black community will do to be better partners, Ms. Coleman said.

At the same time, the district’s equity team is working on ways to improve education for children of all minority groups, and is conducting a series of four community dialogues about race and equity.

“I think they’re trying to tackle this, and it’s bold,” said Bill English, a co-chairman of the Coalition for Black Churches, which has been active on behalf of Minneapolis’ north side. “In good old ‘Minnesota nice,’ you don’t deal with racism. You pretend it doesn’t exist.”

Mr. Stewart, the school board member, said the next step—moving “from platitudes to practice”—could be a heavier lift than producing the covenant.

“That’s the essential work,” he said. “It is the tough stuff. It scares people. But where the real work is is getting everyone on the same page with what we are going to do for kids.”

A version of this article appeared in the September 24, 2008 edition of Education Week as Minneapolis Sets ‘Covenant’ on Black Achievement

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