Osseo schools could approve a new racial equity plan

The Osseo Public School District could adopt its first equity policy Tuesday in an effort to close its wide racial achievement gap.

But parents who originally clamored for the change say they were omitted from the drafting process. Their exclusion, they say, is just another example of a longstanding cultural and racial disconnect between the district and themselves.

Fifty-two percent of Osseo's students are minorities, and there's a gulf in academic achievement between them and their white peers.

For example, about 72 percent of white students were proficient in reading last year, according to the Minnesota Department of Education. Only about a third of black students in the district had reading proficiency, the data show.

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As the district was developing a policy to combat these issues, Amril Okonkwo, a parent, said she wasn't notified any such plan was in the works.

"You're creating a policy that will affect our African immigrant children and there's no input," Okonkwo said. "I truly believe that they need to change the way they do their outreach. They have to go ahead and actually seek our input from parents."

But Osseo Area Schools General Counsel Margaret Westin said a selected group of stakeholders — including the teachers union, parent advisory groups and community leaders — was involved.

"Obviously, we're not going to be able to reach everybody," she said, "but we did try and because we knew it was a policy that would be important to our communities."

Furthermore, district officials say they followed the usual steps for policy adoption.

But that's the problem, parents say — the usual steps only engage white parents who are familiar with the system, with no consideration for the district's changing demographics.

Carla Hines says the district's reluctance to engage parents in culturally specific ways result in poor parent involvement and gives the district an out. Hines pulled her two sons from Osseo schools and enrolled them in private schools three years ago.

"The district says parents of color aren't coming to the board meetings, but if these parents aren't coming to you as a school district, why aren't you going to them?" Hines said. "Why aren't you to their churches? Why aren't you going to their community centers to get their input if you really wanted it?"

In 2014, a group of parents led by the nonprofit African Immigrant Services asked the district to hire more teachers of color and create a plan to boost their children's academic performance.

When it learned of the draft policy, the group asked for a meeting to give the district feedback. They met with district officials two weeks ago.

Among their recommendations, the parents say they want accountability for the equal treatment the policy promises.

The policy could also foster more tolerance in the district, said Abdullah Kiatamba, the executive director for African Immigrant Services. In light of the recent racist graffiti found in a Maple Grove Senior High bathroom, he said, that's especially important.

"[Minority students] are part of the community," Kiatamba said. "They are changing the face and composition of the very district. This is minority-majority district. If they're feeling alienated and targeted, then we need to work even harder."

The district is working to become more culturally aware and sensitive to all members of the community, said Rev Hillstrom, Osseo's director for educational equity.

"The reality is racism exists in the United States of America — whether it be Maple Grove, Osseo, Brooklyn Park — it doesn't matter. It's here," he said. "So we are not being foolish to ignore that and we're looking for effective ways to engage with community and multiple stakeholders to eliminate racial predictable outcomes."

Hillstrom added that Osseo schools are already addressing the academic disparity issues. But it's a long way from racial parity.

"We know that students of color — many students of color — are not doing well as their white counterparts, and that's simply unacceptable for Osseo Area Schools," Hillstrom said.

The proposed equity policy is an attempt to fix that and put the issues "front and center for us as a community," Hillstrom said.

The plan includes the district's commitment to increase diversity of the teaching staff. About 5 percent of its teachers are people of color.

Schools will also try to improve parental engagement and empowerment, and the parents say they want to help in that effort.

Osseo schools board member Robert Gerhart, who helped draft the policy, said the committee will consider the parents' new recommendations. He says improved communication would help every parent.

"Just as an individual, I'm not entirely happy with the district's ability to communicate with anybody of any color," he said. "As a white parent, I don't think I would know as much as I do now because I'm plugged in at the level that I'm at."