Controversial redesign plan goes before Minneapolis schools this week

A proposal to narrow the racial achievement gap is drawing ire from some parents, including those with kids the plan is intended to help

A family of four laughs as they stand outside in the snow.
The Anderson family, Heather, Heath, Heston and Hattie, say the proposed Comprehensive District Design plan would distribute resources equitably throughout the Minneapolis school district.
Courtesy of Heather Anderson

To Tania Ramirez, a plan to restructure Minneapolis Public Schools means cutting the heart and soul of her grandson's elementary school, a dual-immersion program that has allowed him to embrace his Puerto Rican identity.

But to Heather Anderson, the mother of two African American kids, the proposal is a long overdue reform she hopes will improve the outcomes of black students and children from low-income neighborhoods.

The Minneapolis Public Schools Board is set to vote Tuesday on a controversial proposal that would force nearly a sixth of students in the district to attend different schools. Officials say the plan would help close the achievement gap between students of color and white students. But many families say the possible changes are adding to already high levels of anxiety during the COVID-19 pandemic.

District officials are proposing to centralize magnet programs like dual immersion, arts and technology to give more access to students from other parts of the city. They want to create racially integrated neighborhood elementary schools in their place, and say boundary changes are only one part of a complete overhaul.  The plan would also shift funding from busing to educational programs. 

“We have major challenges in our district that have been evident for over a decade,” said Eric Moore, the chief of accountability, research and equity for the district. “The sense of urgency of trying to improve the academic experience of all of our students is really important.”

Critics, however, say the plan dismisses complaints from parents, including those from racially diverse backgrounds who say being able to choose where to send their kids has helped them thrive.

Changes to language-immersion programs

When Ramirez first moved to Minnesota from Puerto Rico decades ago, her sons, then in elementary school, were bullied and ridiculed when they spoke Spanish to the point that they eventually stopped speaking the language and lost it. One of them denied he was Puerto Rican.

“And our experience then was very difficult,” the St. Paul woman said. “So in dealing with trying to figure out their own identity, they were here in Minnesota, they removed themselves from their extended family.”

A woman standing beside her adult son as she holds a young boy outside.
Tania Ramirez jokes with her 4-year-old grandson Emerson and son Morgan Andrés France-Ramirez at her home in St. Paul on Sunday. They spoke out against the Comprehensive District Design during a protest earlier this year in Minneapolis.
Christine T. Nguyen | MPR News

The family didn’t want that same experience for Ramirez’s grandson, 4-year-old Emerson, who goes to a dual-immersion school in south Minneapolis. Being able to grow up proud to speak both English and Spanish at school has been a crucial part of his identity and one of the main reasons his family enrolled him at Windom School.

But under the Comprehensive District Design, which is known as the CDD, Windom would no longer exist as they know it today. The school would become a neighborhood elementary school instead. Dual-immersion Spanish programs would move to another part of the city, where the Hispanic population is not dominant.

Amy Gustafson, who serves on the parent teacher organization of Windom School, said the plan seems to push against magnet programs. That has motivated her to speak out. 

“I feel very passionately about dual language and the benefits that it can offer to English language learners,” she said. “I'm just more concerned about the impact, the negative impact to the communities that the plan states that it's trying to actually support and serve.”

Disruption on top of COVID-19

She and a number of other parents have been asking the district to postpone the vote, arguing  that families are busy dealing with distance learning during the pandemic. The district has already delayed the vote because of COVID-19.

“We're in an environment now where we don’t even know what schools are going to look like in the next one to two years,” she said. “So doing a major reorganization on top of the disruption that we still don't even understand from a global pandemic makes no sense.”

But district officials say they’ve been gathering feedback for months and have updated the plan based on those changes.

Under the plan, the number of racially isolated schools goes from 21 to eight schools. Kindergarten to eighth-grade magnets would become neighborhood K-5 elementary schools. District officials also propose enhancing programming at North High School with funding for music education, advanced coursework and engineering, computer science and information technology. 

Minnesota has some of the largest achievement gaps in the country. Students of color and low- income students generally experience worse outcomes than their white peers.

A call for urgency

Moore said the district has been talking to the community about these gaps since at least 2017. Families have been sharing concerns about school climate, academic rigor and safety. 

He notes that there are 11,000 elementary students that could attend Minneapolis schools but don’t.

“We have to be able to address the decline in enrollment,” he said. “It’s imperative that we really start to act and address these challenges.”

The CDD plan would be implemented by fall of 2021 and cost $11.5 million in the first year. It moves about $600,000 from transportation to other programs. 

Community members say they believe cutting transportation costs is the primary goal of the plan. They called their own virtual meeting to air their concerns last month. 

A man sits outside of a coffee shop in a city.
Toussaint Morrison in August 2019.
Brian Bakst | MPR News 2019

In a forum hosted by Minneapolis actor Toussaint Morrison, civil rights activist Nekima Levy Armstrong said the district has not engaged the community to come up with a plan that addresses things like the digital divide and language performance. She said the plan lumps all students of color in one category without recognizing that their needs vary.

"They feel that if there is a certain percentage of white kids in the class, if there is a certain percentage of black kids, Latinx kids, Somali kids in the class, that that's automatically going to close the gaps in education,” Levy Armstrong said. “That makes no sense whatsoever if you're not dealing with the outdated and racist curriculum.”

Others, however, are hopeful that reform will help students succeed. They say disruption is necessary to better serve students from-low income neighborhoods.

Anderson’s two African American children attend Justice Page Middle School in southwest Minneapolis. Her kids might get moved, they might not — she says it's not clear from the plan. But Anderson hopes changes will benefit black students.

“One of the things that gets lost in this story is that you can’t change a really racist system without disrupting some boundary lines and without disrupting some of the things that happen,” she said.