School Choice & Charters

Minneapolis Aims at New Start for District

By Catherine Gewertz — December 14, 2007 4 min read

The Minneapolis school district has been struggling in the past few years with low student achievement, declining enrollment, money shortages, and frequent leadership changes. Now, its leaders are staking their hopes on a new strategic plan to help revitalize the system and rebuild public confidence.

At a meeting last week, the school board adopted a set of nine recommendations drawn from the plan. They form a broad outline for the district as it addresses complaints that have prompted hundreds of city families to sign their children up for private, charter, and nearby suburban schools.

The recommendations include raising expectations and academic rigor for students, correcting practices that perpetuate racial and socioeconomic achievement gaps, building a stronger corps of principals and teachers, and shoring up the district’s financial health.

Minneapolis’ strategic plan still must be shaped into concrete steps to be implemented in the coming months, a process made tougher by next year’s projected $11 million shortfall in the roughly $650 million budget.

But even in its conceptual form, many welcomed the plan as a powerful step toward unifying the city around the most important educational goals.

“This is historic,” Superintendent Bill Green said in an interview. “We’ve been very fractured. But we’ve been able to reconnect with all our stakeholders, and inspire our community with hope that this is a school district that can not just survive, but succeed and take us into the next century.”

Kate Towle, who serves on a districtwide parent council that advises the superintendent, supports the plan, but notes that the complexity of putting it into action requires an unusual degree of solidarity.

“We are going from piecemeal to global,” she said. “The challenge is, how do we do all the parts together? We all need to work together now.”

Defining Problems

McKinsey & Co., a global management-consulting firm, was brought in last May. Through interviews, surveys, and data analysis, the company painted a sobering picture of the district’s troubles.

Three different name tags have graced the superintendent’s door in the past four years. Enrollment had fallen from 47,500 in 2000-01 to 35,200 last year, and many community members complained that the district was doing too little to improve its educational offerings, even as families abandoned the Minneapolis schools.

State funding is widely viewed as inadequate, and local costs are rising, fueling a deficit that is expected to approach $100 million by 2011. Fewer than half the district’s students meet state standards in mathematics and reading.

Parents, especially lower-income African-American and immigrant parents, felt unwelcome in schools and were fed up with big classes and with test scores that lagged far behind those of white and Asian children from more affluent families. Teachers sought more support handling scores of misbehaving students. Principals thought a more demanding classroom environment was needed, and wanted the right to assemble their own staff members.

“[The district] will need to set a clear direction and take bold action to reverse the current direction,” a September report by McKinsey warned the school board.

Some community members said last week they thought the board’s recommendations were sound, but they stopped short of applauding them because of a lack of detail.

“They are good ideas, but there are no specifics laid out about how they are going to change things. We’ll see what happens,” said Ahndi Fridell, a parent advisory council member from southwest Minneapolis.

Exactly how the district will carry out the recommendations remains to be seen. The Minneapolis Federation of Teachers, which is negotiating a new contract, has made no secret of its opposition to the prospect of allowing principals to hire the teachers they wish regardless of seniority.

“Why can’t principals be held accountable with the teachers they have, just as teachers are held accountable for all students that come before them?” said Robert Panning-Miller, the president of the 2,800-member affiliate of both the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers.

“The message that is implicit is that we’ve got a bunch of under-performing teachers, which we completely disagree with.”

Some activists are worried that in the push to recommend higher standards and close the gaps in achievement, too little has been said about how schools will help students who are far behind.

“We support rigor, but it doesn’t mean a damn thing when so many kids need to be remediated,” said Bill English, the co-chairman of the Coalition of Black Churches, who has been active on school issues affecting the predominantly African-American north side of Minneapolis, which has seen the most families opt for charter, private, or suburban schools.

“They need to put down in detail how they are going to grab these kids, put our arms around them, so they end up being productive and going to college,” he said.

Restoring the district’s financial health could require help from the state capital. School board member Lydia Lee said some of the budget woes stem from a 2001 change in state financing methods that shifted a greater portion of school funding from local property taxes to state funds, and has left Minneapolis with too little money.

How the district chooses to restructure its lowest-performing 25 percent of schools could prove controversial. The board is considering “restarting” them with new leadership, new staffing, and more student support.

Its strategy could also include opening quasi-independent, self-governed schools that were made possible by a new state law advocated by community activists and the teachers’ union.

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