July 2, 2018
Magnet schools may soon give way to “coordinated uniqueness” in the Minneapolis Public Schools, according to a presentation at the school board’s June 26 Committee of the Whole meeting.
“Coordinated uniqueness” is an awkward bit of doublespeak crafted by local organizational consultant, Dennis Cheesebrow. Cheesebrow has been hired by MPS to help the district prepare a new strategic plan, intended to address questions about the district’s “footprint,” as well as its market share and future program offerings. The plan is in the formation stage and will be presented to the public for review later in the fall.
New Emphasis on Core Programming, Predictability
The impetus behind Cheesebrow’s coordinated uniqueness framework appears to be a coming move to dissolve magnet school programming in MPS. In lieu of magnet school options, the emerging Cheesebrow proposal would be to create two or three community schools in every attendance zone throughout the district. These schools would all have the same baseline of core staff and programming, with the option of adding district-coordinated, unique offerings at each school site. (Further details about what this might look like will reportedly be coming in August and September.)
To be clear, neither Cheesebrow nor Superintendent Ed Graff have publicly declared that magnet schools should no longer exist. Instead, a narrative is being stitched together that strongly suggests a preference for more community schools with tighter busing zones and quarter-mile walk areas. The goal is to not only reduce busing and make it more efficient, but also, in Cheesebrow’s view, to use transportation as a way to draw families to the district.
In his estimation, families will be attracted by a system built around safety, consistency, predictability and sustainability. Not so much environmental sustainability, but sustainability of programming and expectations. If a school would like to develop some sort of unique program dimensions, Cheesebrow said, the district should first be prepared to support it for the next five or ten years. Busing is apparently considered a draw in this scenario because it would be used in a more contained manner, with students picked up and dropped off along shorter bus routes.
Many families do appear to choose schools according to start times and bus routes, as evidenced by the public comment period at several recent school board meetings. Most district students currently get bused away from the school closest to them (at a rate of 76 percent, according to Cheesebrow) and very few walk to school. Limiting attendance zones and promoting “walkable” schools might help pivot transportation resources to high needs populations, such as homeless and highly mobile or special education students.
Assert District Interest First
Cheesebrow explained his theories from some interesting vantage points (including his apparent conclusion that magnet schools do not help with desegregation). He espoused, for example, a belief in unwavering district decision-making. Don’t be swayed by the presence of individual or group concerns, he advised board members. There has to be instead a “fundamental shift in strategy” that will assert the district’s commitment to its own vision, whatever that ends up being.
MPS should work on emphasizing protocol, clarity and systems, Cheesebrow said. It should also choose to stick to “district interest” over any one group or individual’s interests, in an effort to worry less about public approval and more about forward momentum. This will probably sound shocking to those that want more community say in how the district is being run, but it may seem comforting to those who’ve grown weary of the sight of raucous school board meetings.
Superintendent Graff backed up Cheesebrow’s idea that the district should follow a more unified, “non-negotiable” stance when it comes to implementing change. In response to questioning from citywide rep, Rebecca Gagnon, Graff acknowledged that, as it stands, there is no “clearly articulated” look at what is currently being provided in MPS sites, primarily at the elementary school level. He spoke of being in agreement with Cheesebrow, though, that “confidence, predictability, security, planning,” and so on, would “help build market share and infrastructure.”
More Central Office Authority?
But the cart may be coming a bit before the horse. Gagnon’s further questioning of Graff seemed to reveal that he, too, would like a clearer picture of what is currently available in all schools, and whether or not what is available fits with his vision of what all schools should, predictably, be able to provide–even in the face of shifting budgets. (At this meeting, he did not spell out what his must-haves are for district schools.)
Be careful, Gagnon warned. If MPS, through Cheesebrow, is talking about the need for “equitable programming” without knowing first whether or not such a thing already exists, then the public may be lead to believe that it does not exist. Further, Gagnon worried aloud that the developing Cheesebrow-Graff plan for the district is being built around Davis Center decision-making, to the exclusion of site-based, community preferences. What followed was a very telling exchange between Gagnon and Graff.
Gagnon: “The thing I hear from this, once again, is Davis not as a support center, but as a top-down decision-maker. I don’t hear autonomy in schools, I don’t hear self-governed, I don’t see full-service schools, I don’t hear community partnership schools. I don’t hear site governance anywhere in any of this. I hear ‘Davis is going to make a decision, the board’s going to make a decision, and we’re going to preserve as much as possible of…how do you say…coordinated uniqueness,’ and we’re going to tell you what that is.”
Gagnon continued on, saying she would “prefer Davis as a support center that answers the call” from school and community leaders, based on what they have identified as needs and priorities for their site. In this view, Gagnon said, “communities are governing the schools and driving decisions,” with the Davis Center standing back.
Graff was nonplussed, however, and said that what Gagnon sees in the plan is “probably intentional.”
Graff: “What you’ve described is what we currently have. And, as a Superintendent, if that is the direction the board wants to continue down, where we have schools as the decision-makers, and offering up what they feel is needed, and our job is to make photo copies, then I think we need to have a serious conversation because I didn’t come here to offer my guidance and support of what is needed in the schools. I’m really trying to make sure there is a level of accountability.”
Graff said he wasn’t talking about taking away day-to-day decisions from principals, but rather relieving them of having to plan budgets, lead community conversations, guide professional development, and so on. He said he knows of no other district where the central office hangs back and “makes copies” while schools operate nearly independently and “still yield results that everyone can stand up and feel good about.”
Does Anyone Remember 2014?
This is a seismic shift in thinking for a Minneapolis Public Schools superintendent. Just four years ago, under the tenure of Bernadeia Johnson, MPS moved to embrace the Community Partnership Schools model and its promise that “schools are the unit of change.” Although largely driven by outside, market-based reform interests, this model offered a tempting escape from other MPS initiatives (also embraced by Johnson), including the specious “Focused Instruction” that sought to standardize teaching practices.
Johnson greatly expanded her administrative team in 2014, adding in, among other things, a newly created associate superintendent of magnets position. This was held by Lucilla Davila, a former Windom Immersion School principal who has had a controversial run as a top administrator. Tellingly, Davila’s name–and her position–were not included in Graff’s recent restructuring of his administrative team. He has shrunk the associate superintendent ranks down to three and an overseer of magnet schools is not among them. Davila has instead been reassigned as principal of Folwell Arts Magnet.
Graff has not supported the Community Partnership Schools plan, which, prior to his tenure, resulted in a handful of MPS sites, including Southwest High School and Bancroft Elementary, being allowed to set their own calendars and pursue more flexible programming. Parents at Southwest, for example, were surprised to learn recently that they would not be allowed to independently select a new principal for their school, although that had been the expectation under their “partnership” school status.
And where do magnet schools fit into this? At the June 26 meeting, school board chair Nelson Inz, said assuredly that magnet schools will continue to exist in MPS. But it isn’t clear how. If the goal is to move towards greater uniformity, in order to perhaps strip off the layers of chaos that have contaminated MPS, will Graff continue to support magnets? Magnets have struggled to remain relevant in the standards and accountability era, with its emphasis on test scores, benchmark assessments and panic around “failing” schools, students, teachers and administrators.
Any magnet, whether it is focused on project-based learning (Open schools), Montessori methods, the arts or language immersion, can easily wither under the glare of standardized testing and external accountability measures. Add in capricious district-level enrollment priorities and ongoing patterns of white flight that offer stability and success to certain, sought-after schools (including magnets), and the picture gets quite complicated. (These factors also can and do undermine traditional public schools, too, of course.)
The Tyranny of Choice
To Graff’s point, he was hired as an outsider, not a likely enabler of the dreaded “status quo.” He inherited Johnson’s plans, and therefore a district that has magnet schools (a holdover from the 1970s, when court-ordered desegregation plans reigned); a handful of Community Partnership Schools; a mishmash of inner-district school choice options propped up through expensive and complicated busing routes; half-empty buildings in some neighborhoods and impossibly over-filled schools elsewhere.
There are language immersion schools, IB schools, community schools, schools struggling to survive amid shifting bus routes and priorities, schools that are shrinking as new programs, plans and priorities take root. There are several charter schools opening this fall, including two in northeast Minneapolis–a neighborhood with a long history of white flight, where Edison High School stays open largely by importing students from north Minneapolis, perhaps to the detriment of North and Henry High Schools.
Mini History Lesson From the 1970s
As Judge Larson’s findings later indicated, the district oversized
Bethune Elementary School with the knowledge that most of
the children from the predominately black near north side of the
city would go to Bethune rather than “spilling over into neighboring
schools with larger majority enrollments.”33 The driving force behind
the district’s decisions regarding school size and attendance boundaries was “public pressure not to integrate.
…Principal George McDonough told the court that 50% of Bethune’s
students were minority students because of an increasing minority
population in the Bethune attendance area in north-central Minneapolis.
McDonough also cited increasing parochial school enrollment among white students in the northeast Minneapolis area, the area from which the district sought to attract majority students to attend Bethune.
–from Booker v. Special School District No. 1: A History of School Desegregation in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Cheryl W. Heilman
Magnets: Drowning in a Sea of Competing Choice Programs?
Magnets once thrived in Minneapolis, particularly in the late 1970s and early 80’s, when schools such as North High, with its strong Summatech program, actually did draw students from across the city and even the suburbs.
But that was before charter schools and the Choice is Yours program, which allows MPS students to be bused to neighboring districts. There is also the Expanded Choice Program within MPS, which was created during another recent bout of shifting priorities and strategic planning. This program promises students stuck in “low-performing schools” in high poverty neighborhoods the chance to attend schools like Lake Harriet Upper and Lower School in southwest Minneapolis, where test scores are high and staffing turnover has historically been low.
These days, if a school’s standardized test scores are high, people think the school’s staff is effective. If a school’s standardized test scores are low, they see the school’s staff as ineffective. In either case, because educational quality is being measured by the wrong yardstick, those evaluations are apt to be in error.
—Why Standardized Tests Don’t Measure Educational Quality. W. James Popham, 1999.
We have never adequately addressed the issue of the growing number of students and families who live in poverty and have instead positioned busing kids to “high performing schools” as the best escape route. If Graff can somehow shift the conversation to ensuring quality programming, stable staffing and equitable funding in all Minneapolis neighborhoods, then perhaps the coming changes will be worth it.
But there is no indication yet that quality programming is on tap here. How will we measure success beyond standardized testing and the endless adherence to benchmark assessments and packaged curriculum? So far, there has been no vision for what this might look like. It may be tough for families to think about giving up magnet schools or a bus to an immersion program across town if there is no compelling, child development-centered vision for education in MPS. Right now, the driving forces seem to be Cheesebrow and Graff’s preference for “reducing variability” and ensuring predictability, consistency, and well-functioning systems, as well as a continued devotion to “data-driven cycles of instruction.”
As Graff said during the June 26 meeting, we need a comprehensive look at what our programming priorities and values are. But, right now, that seems like an afterthought, since Cheesebrow’s restructuring proposal is well under way, and there is no community engagement plan in place yet.
We must invest in all public schools, rather than pitting them against one another. Our schools should anchor our communities, build partnerships with parents, residents and community institutions, and provide wrap-around services to address obstacles that often prevent children in poverty from reaching their academic potential. We must nurture the whole student, not narrow the curriculum by imposing high stakes standardized testing that forces teaching to the test. Our curricula must include critical thinking, the arts and music, while encouraging creativity.
—“Public education needs more than school choice.” David Hecker, The Detroit News. 2017
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