Minneapolis schools propose reforms to boost student achievement

Minneapolis schools superintendent Johnson
Minneapolis Schools superintendent Bernadeia Johnson.
MPR Photo/Jeffrey Thompson

Educators want to give Minneapolis Public Schools more autonomy on budgets, hiring and schedules.

Moving away from centralized district decision-making means schools would operate more like the charter schools that have increasingly become their competition. The plan is expected to boost student performance by giving individual schools more say on budgets, hiring teachers and how much time students spend in the classroom.

But offering schools more autonomy would require new agreements with the teachers' unions.

Minneapolis Public Schools superintendent Bernadeia c announced the proposal Monday morning. A decade ago when Johnson was a principal in the district, she wanted more say in what happened at her school. Johnson is now pitching an effort to give educators what she wanted.

"I felt like I was so locked into what the system felt like I needed to do, there was no way the system could ever understand the specific needs of my classroom teachers or my classroom students," Johnson said.

The district wants to try it out in a handful of struggling schools in the 2015-2016 academic year, before opening it up to other Minneapolis schools.

In exchange for autonomy on hiring, programming, and scheduling decisions, schools would enter a contract with the district to meet certain performance goals, Johnson said.

She said that would work better than the current top-down, one-size-fits-all system where the district sets all schools priorities.

"The best ways of solving a problem are at the site," Johnson said. "If you have the competent teachers and competent leaders, they should be able to address what those challenges are."

That could help Minneapolis close the achievement gap, Johnson said.

One measurement of the achievement gap in Minneapolis is the four-year graduation rate. Seventy percent of white students graduate on time, compared to 38 percent of black and Latino students, and only a quarter of Native American students.

Johnson's proposed system is similar to the one used by Minnesota's charter schools. In fact, Johnson said the academic successes of two Minneapolis charter school systems have been an inspiration.

State test data shows both Harvest Prep-Seed Academy in north Minneapolis and Hiawatha Leadership Academies in south Minneapolis have closed the achievement gap between white students and students of color.

Minneapolis is wise to offer schools more autonomy, said Eli Kramer, executive director of Hiawatha Leadership Academies. It's worked well for his schools, he said.

"It does give us lots of flexibility over program design," Kramer said. "Instead of thinking only about inputs like curriculum and subjects; instead we can focus on results and achievement, and look at whether what we're doing currently is succeeding and if it's not, change."

The program would also require flexibility from the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers. Negotiations with the teachers union will be critical to the success of the proposal, Johnson said.

When the district enters contract negotiations this summer, the superintendent will ask labor leaders to expand teacher time in the classroom, and allow schools to make decisions on how teachers are hired, promoted and fired.

Lynn Nordgren, president of the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers, said she is in favor of schools having more say in how students are educated, but is not ready to sign off on the district's plan just yet.

"We'll have to push up our sleeves, sit down at the table and see what the superintendent is talking about and where we'd all like to go together," Nordgren said.

The Minneapolis Public Schools board would have the ultimate say in whether schools would get the freedom that Johnson proposes.

Board chair Alberto Monserrate said he supports the effort and wants to see the district do what is needed to close the achievement gap.

"Student demographics have changed dramatically over the last 20 years, but our ways of addressing the needs of our students has changed very little," Monserrate said.

In 2008, Colorado passed a law that allowed schools to receive autonomy from their districts. So far, two dozen schools have joined the effort, mostly in Denver.

A report last year showed little had changed in those schools other than some budget and calendar decisions.

The report also showed that while some schools showed improvement in reading and math, overall most schools did not consistently show enough growth to meet state goals for student achievement.