Since mid-March, public school students in Minnesota have had to stay home because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Now, according to the state’s governor, Tim Walz, schools will remain closed until the end of this school year, with no guarantee that they will reopen in the fall for anything other than online teaching and learning.
This hasn’t stopped the Minneapolis Public Schools from attempting to push forward with a dramatic restructuring plan, known as the Comprehensive District Design.
Under this plan, nearly all of the city’s 34,000 public school students and teachers would be reassigned to new schools, beginning in the fall of 2021. The proposal includes the closure of several popular, long-standing magnet school programs, as well as the dismantling of existing community schools in favor of new school configurations.
The narrative surrounding the plan is one of crisis and urgency. Advocates for the shake-up, including administrators within the Minneapolis Public Schools, insist the reorganization will not only save money — a key issue for the cash-strapped district — but also ensure access to a “well-rounded education” for all students, regardless of their background.
More than half of all district students live in poverty, according to federal guidelines, and many require special education services or English language support. Educational disparities that fall along racial and economic lines are a persistent problem in Minneapolis, and the pursuit of greater equity in achievement is a key argument being used in defense of the plan.
In a recent interview with the Minneapolis Star Tribune, district superintendent Ed Graff insisted that it was necessary to keep moving forward with a comprehensive overhaul because students cannot “afford to wait any longer.” We must act now to reshape the district for future success, Graff argued, even as the coronavirus epidemic continues to spread doubt and uncertainty.
Another problem Graff must contend with is an ongoing decline in enrollment. More than a thousand students left the district in the last school year alone, snagging spots either in one of the growing number of charter schools in and around Minneapolis or enrolling in a neighboring district.
An exodus of students from the Minneapolis Public Schools means the district is left with aging infrastructure and fewer per-pupil dollars with which to serve all students, especially those with special education needs.
Disaster Leads to Opportunity
The crisis rhetoric puts the Minneapolis schools plan squarely in line with other disaster-driven public school upheavals, including those in New Orleans, Puerto Rico, Indianapolis, and Denver.
In New Orleans and Puerto Rico, hurricanes struck, paving the way for school choice and privatization advocates to swoop in and institute dramatic changes to public education.
In places like Chicago, Denver, Memphis, and Jackson, Mississippi, however, the threat has been driven less by a natural disaster and more by a desire to force change onto vulnerable communities from the top down, at the expense of democratic governance and community input.
Often, the pattern goes something like this. After years of struggling along with budget cuts and underfunding, districts are declared failures due to low student test scores or a gap in outcomes between white students and students of color. Then, a crisis is declared, thereby opening the door to state control of public schools, perhaps, or a push for school choice schemes.
Such schemes include tax credits for private school tuition and the proliferation of publicly funded, privately managed charter schools.
Meanwhile, the public to whom the school system belongs is typically shut out of such machinations and forced to fight to have a say in how their schools are run. The Little Rock, Arkansas, school system offers a stark example of this.
In 2015, Little Rock schools were subject to a state takeover against the wishes of parents and community members. At the same time, the city’s school board was also dissolved, leaving citizens with no local representation regarding the governance of their district.
The reasons cited for the takeover included the need for steep funding cuts and the prevalence of low test scores in several schools. Although the problems had been growing for years, according to news reports, state education officials declared the need to act with urgency on behalf of Little Rock.
The sense of urgency, it seems, provided cover for the drastic action of putting the schools under state oversight.
Community members fought back and were granted some control over the Little Rock schools earlier this year. An additional lawsuit was filed recently on behalf of residents, however, in order to challenge the ongoing restrictions the state has put on the district.
Now, we can add Minneapolis to the list of communities fighting for greater authority over their public schools.
Minneapolis Pushes Back
Francisco Segovia has a child in the Minneapolis Public Schools and a background as a teacher in his home country of El Salvador. He emigrated to the United States in the 1990s and has been working since then to help the Latino community in Minneapolis navigate the public school system.
Today, he serves as director of an advocacy group known as COPAL, or Communities Organizing Latinx Power and Action. Through this work, which is centered on helping immigrants gain agency and leadership roles, Segovia first learned of the Minneapolis Public Schools’ reorganization plans.
Right away, he noticed that district meetings targeted to the Latino community were often one-way information drops rather than interactive listening sessions. Segovia observed parents sitting passively while district administrators shared details of the district redesign with them, and that bothered him.
Eventually, he suggested to a fellow parent that they should take over the district’s meetings. This led to the formation of a Latino parent collective that operated outside the purview of the Minneapolis Public Schools.
The goal was agency and systems change driven from the bottom up, not the top down. Through the parent collective, Segovia and others worked to identify the concerns that mattered most to the Latino community, including the desire for better communication from the schools and more support for bilingual education programs.
One issue that really stuck out to Segovia was that the district frequently seemed to rely on very small samplings of Latino parents in the schools, and then used their insights to create policies that impacted the entire community.
This became very important when Minneapolis school administrators started presenting their comprehensive redesign plan to parents. Missing from the plan were many elements Segovia and his network had identified as key issues, including bilingual education.
“We need to reframe how the system functions,” Segovia stated, “so that we are not asking a favor of the district but advising it instead. The educational system actually belongs to us.”
Silvia Ibáñez, a Minneapolis parent and bilingual educator, would likely agree with this sentiment. In a recent virtual town hall organized by a local racial justice group, Ibáñez pointed out that 75 percent of native Spanish speakers in grades K-8 stand to be displaced, should the Minneapolis schools’ reorganization plan go forward.
These students will lose their schools and be sent elsewhere, Ibáñez warned, which would further the feeling of invisibility she says many Latino parents already have.
It often seems as though various communities are being pitted against one another as well.
In one case, Minneapolis administrators are proposing moving a popular Spanish dual-language immersion school into a building that already serves as a beloved community school for a diverse group of students. The community school students would be forced to move in this scenario, despite protests from parents and staff.
Somali Families Are Concerned
Another community that stands to face tremendous upheaval under the Minneapolis schools reorganization plan is Somali families. Minnesota is home to the largest Somali diaspora in the United States, and nearly 10 percent of all Minneapolis Public Schools have roots in this community.
Many of them want to send their children to K-8 schools, according to district parent and employee Zeinab Omar, but under the district’s plan, most would no longer be able to do so. In the final version of the redesign, the number of K-8 options in Minneapolis shrinks from eleven to two.
K-8s provide stability for immigrant and refugee families, Omar and others have said, partly because many prefer to have their children in school together for as long as possible.
Omar sends her children to Minneapolis’s Barton Open School, a K-8 magnet program that has become popular with Somali families in recent years. Many in fact put their names on a waiting list and “went through a lot to get into Barton,” Omar noted via email.
Under the district’s new plan, however, Barton will become a K-5 community school serving a much whiter, wealthier demographic. The thought of losing access to Barton has triggered a PTSD response in some families, Omar said, who experienced trauma on their journey to the United States.
Many spent time in refugee camps, where families were often split up and left behind after being told by officials that not everyone could come along to this country. The threat of being forced out of their school here feels similar, Omar stated.
Division and Disruption
For local civil rights attorney Nekima Levy Armstrong, the level of division and disruption present in the Minneapolis Public Schools plan is troubling. Armstrong is the founder of an advocacy group called the Racial Justice Network, and she is the former head of the Minneapolis NAACP.
Armstrong is a prominent activist for racial justice in the Twin Cities, and, as such, she says she was asked to lend her support to the Minneapolis schools redesign. When she took a closer look at the proposal, however, she didn’t like what she saw.
“The whole premise of it is backwards,” Armstrong noted over the phone, maintaining that it began as a way to save money and simplify transportation routes rather than improve academic outcomes.
This is an allegation made by others, especially since the district sought input on the plan from outside consultants known for advancing such efficiency-minded priorities. Pursuing cost savings and a smaller district footprint is understandable, as many Minneapolis schools are under capacity, thanks to the impact of charter schools and open enrollment policies.
Still, Armstrong believes the plan should not go forward in its current form if, as the district claims, the actual goal of it is the pursuit of more equity for students of color.
She pointed out that “Concerns about disparities and the lack of community engagement within the district have been raised for years,” with little follow-through or support. Minneapolis administrators and some board members have “focused only on selling this plan,” in Armstrong’s view, and that is not, she said decisively, how you build trust with marginalized communities.
Instead, she would like to see a more comprehensive approach that centers on a deep dive into policies and practices — including discipline disparities, literacy instruction, and special education programming — that impact students and teachers directly.
Just shuffling students and staff around to different buildings while dismantling well-regarded community schools and magnet programs won’t lead to better results, Armstrong insisted.
And now, she and others have pointed out, families and teachers are having to adjust to new fears and concerns brought by the COVID-19 crisis, leaving little time for engagement in the Minneapolis schools’ redesign.
It has been more than three weeks since the district began online learning for all K-12 students, and parents and district staffers have said that many kids still do not have access to a working digital device or adequate Wi-Fi.
So far, however, the Minneapolis school board is still planning to vote on the Comprehensive District Design plan on May 12, citing the urgent need to push forward in order to serve students better in the future.
“A lot of folks are latching onto the district’s language about equity,” Armstrong pointed out, “but we have to make sure we aren’t being hoodwinked and bamboozled.”
The nine-member Minneapolis school board was scheduled to vote on the plan in April. Due to COVID-19 closures, the vote has been pushed back to May 12, and public comment has been taken primarily via voicemail since in-person meetings are not permitted now.
Sarah Lahm is is a Minneapolis-based writer and researcher. Her work has appeared in outlets such as The Progressive, where she writes the Midwest Dispatch column and contributes pieces to the Public School Shakedown site.