Feeling Badly About the Election Results? Check Out Minnesota

November 20, 2016

We do not yet know who will serve as Secretary of Education in Donald Trump’s administration, but the rumor mill is spinning with names sure to cause consternation for public school proponents everywhere. 

CNN’s shortlist of candidates for the top federal education job includes infamous education reform advocate Michelle Rhee, along with controversial New York City charter school magnate Eva Moskowitz. Former Trump rival Ben Carson was also briefly on this list. Progressive groups have argued that Carson should not be considered for the job partly because he has “railed against the theory of evolution” and categorized the push for LGBT rights as a “Marxist plot.”

But in Minnesota, education activists have reason to feel hopeful. 

Minneapolis students protest Trump, Dakota Access Pipeline

Minneapolis students protest Trump, Dakota Access Pipeline

In late October, a judge dismissed a case brought against Minnesota’s teacher tenure and seniority layoff rules, saying the suit had “failed to establish a link between low academic achievement and the due process provided by the tenure laws.” The suit was part of former journalist Campbell Brown’s attempts, through a mysteriously funded group called Partnership for Educational Justice, to launch campaigns against teacher tenure rules in several states. Called a “conservative legal group” by the online watchdog outlet, Media Matters, the Partnership is described as part of an “education reform echo chamber,” where a small group of very wealthy funders—including Brown—continually promote a pro-business, pro-privatization agenda.

In 2014, Brown’s Partnership group filed a lawsuit against things such as “quality-blind teacher layoffs” in New York. That suit remains unresolved. (Reinforcing claims of an education reform echo chamber, Brown is also the money and vision behind an online education news site, the 74million.org, that reports on the cases the Partnership group brings forth.)

In April, 2016, the Partnership spread its campaign to Minnesota, claiming that the state’s tenure laws provide teachers with “lifetime job protection after only three years,” and that such protections deny students equal access to “highly effective” teachers. The lawsuit collapsed under its own weight, as state education officials immediately pushed back on the idea that tenure means teachers can’t be fired (they can, but with due process protections in place).

Another sticking point? Minnesota, like many states, is grappling with a serious teacher shortage, undercutting the lawsuit’s claim that the most “effective” teachers are continually being given pink slips. Further, the state of Minnesota’s motion to dismiss the case, filed in July, 2016, noted that the plaintiffs failed to show that eliminating tenure would somehow give rise to an exceptional education system. How do we know this? Just look at Minnesota’s charter schools, the motion advised. Most teachers working in charter schools are non-unionized, and lack tenure, yet charters are “disproportionately represented” among Minnesota’s lowest performing schools. Jesse Stewart, a lawyer for the plaintiffs, promised an appeal.

Just days after the lawsuit was dismissed, the November 8 election took place. Four seats were open on the Minneapolis school board, and a slate of union-endorsed candidates pushed through to victory, beating back two incumbents. One of the incumbents, Josh Reimnitz, is a Teach for America alum who was first elected to the city’s school board in 2012, riding a wave of outside reform money. Back then, Reimnitz’s campaign was buoyed by close to $40,000 in donations. By 2014, that amount seemed like it came from a kid’s piggy bank fund, as local education reform interests raised over $275,000 in campaign funds from sources such as former New York mayor, Michael Bloomberg.

The outside cash didn’t flow into Minneapolis this time, perhaps because the 2014 deluge bought mixed results for reformers. Still, in a climate of anti-tenure lawsuits and calls for turning city school districts into New Orleans-style “recovery” zones, the fact that four union—and Democrat—backed candidates prevailed is a development worth taking comfort in. Additionally, a suburban Minneapolis Republican state legislator, David Hann, lost his seat. In 2015, Hann floated the idea that the Minneapolis schools—with or without community input—should be broken into six separate districts, free of state mandates. In a poetic turn, Hann’s senate seat will now be filled by Democrat Steve Cwodzinski, a retired high school civics teacher. 

New legislator, Steve Cwodzinski

New legislator, Steve Cwodzinski

On November 8, Minneapolis voters also overwhelmingly approved a referendum that equals 13 percent of the Minneapolis Public Schools operating budget. Without the referendum, the district would have been forced to operate on a threadbare shoestring. With the referendum, it can continue to meet the needs—in a time of shrinking state-level funding—of over 36,000 students from a constantly expanding rainbow of backgrounds. There are the Trump-dreaded refugees and immigrants, from Somalia, Karen, Mexico, and points in between, as well as white, middle class kids who only speak English, and a historic, predominantly African-American high school, North High, that almost closed in 2010 but is thriving today. (Not to be missed: Minneapolis South High School’s student newspaper, The Southerner, and its ongoing take on the election.)

Close to twenty percent of the district’s students qualify for special education services. Over sixty percent of them live in poverty, according to federal guidelines. In July, a Minnesota court declined to dismiss a desegregation lawsuit that alleges, in part, that school choice schemes have led to separate and unequal schools throughout the state. How a Trump administration will affect these deep-seated issues is not clear. For now, pro-public school activists in Minnesota have reason to feel victorious.

This post originally appeared on The Progressive magazine’s Public School Shakedown site.

Goodbye, Eli

November 13, 2016

I am glad Eli Kaplan lived two days past Election Day. That way, he got to–undoubtedly–shake his snowy head at the national results, but also celebrate the slate of Democrat and union-endorsed Minneapolis school board candidates who won their own competitive races on Tuesday. 

On Thursday, November 10, Eli died unexpectedly, of a heart attack. He was 84. Today, I will spend part of this sunny day at his funeral service, celebrating the life of a man who, in the last few years, became a friend, donor and supporter. Eli was a long-time Minneapolis resident and fellow frequenter of school board meetings (believe me, we are a small and select group). His obituary makes it clear: “He was devoted to the Minneapolis Public Schools.”

I don’t know how we first met. Maybe it was at a school board meeting. Maybe it was at a Parents United legislative summit on education–the kind we both turned up at, on Saturday mornings, to sip some coffee, eat a grocery store doughnut, and nod along to the deliciously detailed presentations of Mary Cecconi, director of the now departed Parents United. Mostly, wherever I went in recent years to get a dose of education policy, Eli was there. I picture him in a flannel shirt, with a white beard and hearing aid, and a knowing, “I’ve seen this before” smile on his face.

Eli’s kids went to a public, progressive school in Minneapolis. Eventually, that program morphed into Barton Open School, which my kids have attended. As a longtime champion of progressive ed, he was part of the Barton parent group on Facebook (before it was taken down and rebuilt, but that’s another story). Once in a while, as the school moved through one difficult transition after another, Eli would pop in with a helpful, historical clarification about some aspect of our school, Barton Open. He believed in budgets, and had participated in a citizen review of the Minneapolis Public Schools budget for years. They don’t do that anymore, he’d often lament.

Eli had a wry smile and was quick to get a joke. Those two attributes are high on my personal survival list, as we move through the days ahead. I didn’t know Eli outside of education-related events; I have never met his family. But, from our conversations, I know he was a devoted husband, father and grandfather with a soft spot for helping others. He died of a sudden heart attack, the way my own father did. I miss him. I will miss Eli, too. 

Rest in peace, buddy. We’ll take it from here. eli-pic

Minneapolis School Board Campaign Finance Reports Reveal…?

November 5, 2016

In 2012, Minneapolis residents got an education reform wake-up call in the candidacy of Josh Reimnitz. Reimnitz, then a Teach for America alum new to Minneapolis, won a spot on the Minneapolis school board after attracting thousands of dollars in campaign funds–the most, at close to $40,000, ever seen in what was once a low-profile race.

As Reimnitz’s campaign war chest grew, observers worried that the Minneapolis school board race was becoming “nationalized.” And, of course, it was. Just after Reimnitz’s 2012 victory, Minneapolis Star Tribune reporter Steve Brandt made this observation:

“Reimnitz won with a tidal wave of spending that set a record for a Minneapolis board race. Some came from friends but, even more important, from people he’d never met who are pushing a school-reform agenda.”

2012 was just the beginning.

In 2014, hundreds of thousands of dollars in outside money flooded into the Minneapolis school board race, mostly through the cleverly named Minneapolis Progressive Education Fund. This Fund, which operates as a political action committee, was set up by then-MinnCAN director, Daniel Sellers. Riding a wave of plutocrat interest in local school board elections, Sellers was able to attract large donations from some decidedly non-progressive sources. 

Illustration: Christoph Hitz

Illustration: Christoph Hitz

Billionaire education reform advocates such as Michael Bloomberg and Arthur Rock, a venture capitalist and Teach for America funder, plumped up the Fund’s coffers, as did local Republican party affiliates such as Ben Whitney and Edina resident Bonnie McGrath, who reportedly became deeply alarmed about the state of public education after viewing 2012’s reform blockbuster, Waiting for Superman.

In 2014, the Minneapolis Progressive Education Fund tried a strong-arm tactic by spending money on negative campaign literature, in favor of school board candidates Don Samuels and Iris Altamirano, and against incumbent Rebecca Gagnon. The strategy turned the race into an ugly, last-minute smear campaign against Gagnon, who nonetheless retained her seat on the board. Samuels also won. (The Fund has around $12, 000 in the bank. Final 2016 campaign finance reports, which would show whether or not that money gets spent, will not be available until January, 2017.)

The combination of Samuels and Reimnitz on the Minneapolis school board has not led to a puppet-like adherence to a reform agenda. Samuels seems like more of an outlier, voting against Michael Goar–the presumed favorite of the local reform community–during his bid to become the district’s superintendent. He also voted in favor of the board’s 2015 move to cancel its contract with the controversial Reading Horizons company.

Conversely, Reimnitz did vote for Goar. He was also one of two board members (along with Carla Bates) to vote against the decision to cancel the contract with Reading Horizons, whose curriculum was deemed racist and offensive by many in the community. If reform-supported candidates are supposed to bring group think to the board, it hasn’t happened yet.

2016 Campaign Finance Reports

Still, the education reform crowd appears to be betting on two candidates in this year’s school board race: Reimnitz and his counterpart on the board, Tracine Asberry, who is running for re-election in District 6. Neither one received the endorsement of either the DFL or the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers, perhaps endearing them to reform interests. Reimnitz is running against Bob Walser in District 4, while Asberry is facing a challenge from Ira Jourdain, who first ran for a seat on the board in 2014, and spoke out then against the “dark money” impacting the school board race.

Reimnitz’s most recent campaign finance report shows that he has raised close to $15,000 as of November 1. That is significantly less than he had in 2012, but currently more than any other candidate. The traces of reform money can still be seen on Reimnitz’s 2016 report, with donations from many Teach for America and charter school affiliates. Also telling: Reimnitz has attracted the support of wealthy Republican donor Ben Whitney and former Minneapolis mayoral candidate and charter school supporter, Cam Winton.

Reimnitz has also received money from Tad Piper. Piper, along with Ben Whitney, is a preeminent funder and supporter of local education reform initiatives, such as MinnCAN and now, Minnesota Comeback. Minnesota Comeback, which I have written about extensively on this blog, is a project of the national Education Cities movement, with a school choice-centered education reform agenda funded by billionaire philanthropists. The goal, according to Minnesota Comeback’s website, is to bring “30, 000 rigorous and relevant seats” to the Minneapolis area by 2025.

Reimnitz’s challenger, Bob Walser, has taken in about $8,000 in donations since August. It appears he is getting support mostly from District 4 residents, with a few out-of-state donations listed (in the past, Walser has said he has a wide network from his years as a traveling musician and teacher.)

Asberry’s campaign finance reports from 2016 are less detailed, with her most recent report listing only five individual contributors. The biggest reported donation she received was $300 from Matt Kramer, former Co-CEO of Teach for America. Asberry’s previous campaign report offers more information about her finances, including support from neighbors and local businesses, as well as from names familiar to those who follow education politics. This includes Lynnell Mickelsen, who often writes about education reform, and Kate Sattler, a supporter of the now-defunct MinnCAN organization.

In an email exchange from September, Asberry noted that she has a long-standing working relationship with Sattler, who had children in the Minneapolis schools and lives in Asberry’s district. Asberry also maintains that she has “deep, diverse, and committed support…from so many District 6 and MPS families,” whose names can be found on her campaign website. In a charged atmosphere fueled by reformer vs. union narratives, it is worth remembering that support for Asberry may be as much about efforts to defeat the union’s endorsed candidate, Ira Jourdain, as about any hope that Asberry will toe a reformer-drawn line. (Asberry did not vote in favor of maintaining the district’s contract with Reading Horizons, nor did she support Goar’s candidacy for superintendent.)

Jourdain, like Walser and the other two DFL and union-endorsed candidates, Kerry Jo Felder (running in District 2) and Kim Ellison (citywide), has received support in the form of mailings, phone banking and coordinated campaign events. Felder’s opponent, Kimberly Caprini, has less than $1800 in funds, and lists no donations over the mandated reporting amount of $100. Ellison has also taken in minimal funds, perhaps because her challenger, Doug Mann, does not appear to have launched a vigorous campaign. All campaign finance reports are available on the Hennepin County elections website.

Reform Tactics Shift

The influence of Minneapolis’s well-heeled education reform community is less visible this time around, but no less present. Minnesota Comeback, which grew out of previous philanthropic efforts to guide the Minneapolis Public Schools, has helped fund an election year side project called Animate the Race. With a promise of neutrality, Animate the Race has put money into hosting school board forums and providing social media coverage of this year’s race. It is being run by Daniel Sellers, who ran MinnCAN and 2014’s Minneapolis Progressive Education Fund.

On November 3, Animate the Race held a school board candidate event at the Children’s Theater. It was a lush affair, and a reminder of the good things philanthropy has provided for Minneapolis–such as the Children’s Theater and its incredible Neighborhood Bridges program. Tad Piper was there, circling the crowd, as was Al Fan, current director of Minnesota Comeback. (All current candidates, except Jourdain and Doug Mann were in attendance. Jourdain said he was busy door knocking in his district that night.)

There were not a lot of other people there. just pockets of reform supporters and little clusters of teachers, neighbors and organizers who don’t neatly fit into that category. All were treated to a sumptious-looking buffet of shrimp cocktail, chicken wings, fruit kabobs and giant brownie wedges. There must have been tons of food left over. I hope the Children’s Theater staff who worked the event got to take some of it home.

Animate the Race’s forum started off hot, with District 6 candidate Bob Walser saying he felt “manipulated” by being invited to an event billed as “non-partisan” but organized by the very person (Sellers, I am assuming, although Walser didn’t name him) that brought in hundreds of thousands of outside, “dark money” in 2014. Walser’s attempt to lead with this drew a harsh rebuke from some Animate the Race supporters, and threatened to throw the whole forum down an ugly, irreversible path. (Animate the Race is also funded by Minnesota Comeback, whose donors have given money to Walser’s rival, Reimnitz.)

But Walser recovered. So did the moderator, Reynolds-Anthony Harris, whose company, Lyceum Partners + design, is listed as an Animate the Race supporter. The atmosphere was barbed, but worth sitting through. At one point, candidates expounded on teachers they considered inspirational. Interestingly, most of them mentioned Minneapolis teachers like Crystal Spring and Flory Sommers, who both recently faced disciplinary action from the district’s HR department after advocating on behalf of racial justice concerns. 

If those are the kind of teachers our current and future board members admire, then perhaps there is hope. But the specter of the billionaire-crafted education reform agenda still lurks around the edges of Minneapolis, waiting, perhaps, for the right combination of funders or school board members to shake up the “status quo.”

Minneapolis: A “Recovery” District?

In a series of complex questions, which the candidates were supposed to answer with a quick yes or no, the moderator asked whether or not the hopeful board members would, once seated, vote to turn Minneapolis into a “recovery” school district–should district test scores and other, undefined measures fail to rise significantly.

This was the moment, and everyone in the room knew it. People rushed to turn their cell phone videos on, to capture the candidates’ responses to this loaded question. A recovery school district, like the ones operating in New Orleans and Memphis, are built around the “transformational” principles of neoliberal education policy. A 2013 article in the Atlantic about the takeover of the Memphis schools describes recovery districts this way: 

The city’s schools are on the vanguard of controversial changes reshaping urban education nationally, including decentralized control, more charter schools, increased use of data to determine which schools stay open, and a greater reliance on new teachers who come through alternative preparation programs such as Teach for America or the Memphis Teacher Residency

FEMA photo

FEMA photo

In New Orleans, there are no public schools left, only a landscape of charters. Hurricane Katrina created the ideal circumstances for a complete takeover of the city’s schools, according to a 2014 In These Times magazine investigation

With the public-school bureaucracy out of the way, powerhouses in the reform movement, such as the Walton and Gates foundations, came calling. In a 2006 interview with Education Next magazine, Mayor Ray Nagin put it this way: “They said, ‘Look, you set up the right environment, we will fund, totally fund, brand-new schools for the city of New Orleans.’ ”

And they did. 

“In sharp contrast to the glacial pace with which the levees were repaired and the electricity grid brought back online, the auctioning-off of New Orleans’ school system took place with military speed and precision,” writes Naomi Klein in her landmark 2007 book The Shock Doctrine. She holds up the takeover as a prime example of “disaster capitalism”: “orchestrated raids on the public sphere in the wake of catastrophic events, combined with the treatment of disasters as exciting market opportunities.”

This is the reform framework hanging in the background of the Minneapolis school board race. When the question about recovery school districts was posed at the Animate the Race forum, the candidates seemed frozen in surprise and uncertainty. No one seemed to know exactly what the moderator was actually asking them to do or say, or perhaps, they did not want to answer the question in a public setting. All either said no or abstained from answering, but in the hubbub, it wasn’t clear who said what.

A further, unspoken question hung over the room: Whose agenda is this?

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Sparks of a Vibrant Debate Fly at Minneapolis School Board Candidate Forum

October 27, 2016

At New Creation church in north Minneapolis, on October 26, an invigorated Minneapolis school board candidate forum took place.

The forum was hosted by NOC (Neighborhoods Organizing for Change), the faith-based group ISAIAH, and Minneapolis Rising, a very grassroots band of public school supporters (including me). Amber Jones, NOC’s education organizer, moderated the event. 

Amber Jones of NOC

Amber Jones of NOC

School board candidates Kimberly Caprini and Kerry Jo Felder, from District 2 in north Minneapolis, were there, along with District 4 candidates Bob Walser and incumbent Josh Reimnitz, Tracine Asberry and Ira Jourdain from District 6 in southwest Minneapolis, and Kim Ellison, citywide candidate. (Her opponent, Doug Mann, could not attend but did provide written answers to forum questions.)

Felder, Walser, Jourdain and Ellison have all been endorsed by both the DFL and the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers. Ellison, Asberry, Caprini and Reimnitz, in turn, were all recently endorsed by the Minneapolis Star Tribune.

Before Jones took the mic, New Creations pastor, Paul Slack, who is also the head of ISAIAH, introduced the event. The forum’s theme was racial justice, which is the focus of ISAIAH’s work as well, and Slack reminded the audience of about 100 people that, “We still haven’t come to terms with our history of racism.” We see it everywhere, he said, in health care and criminal justice disparities. We can also see its “fatal consequences” on the streets, in the stories of people such as Philando Castile and others killed by police.

Slack then noted that “schools hold a unique and powerful promise…where Black lives matter and are sacred.” Our public schools have a “mission to nurture each and every child,” Slack continued, and he spoke of the need for the adequate distribution of resources to support such work. On that note, Slack said ISAIAH sees the pending Minneapolis Public Schools referendum renewal, which voters will support or shut down on November 8, as a “justice issue” worthy of support.

From there, Jones commanded the microphone, describing the event’s purpose as that of “non-partisan, voter education.” The candidates had been given questions to ponder in advance, but before each question was asked, a designated storyteller offered context by describing how the questions related to his or her own personal experiences with the Minneapolis Public Schools.

Special Education, Support Staff, and the Minneapolis Public Schools Budget

The first woman to speak, Shonda Allen, shared the story of her eighth grade daughter, who now attends a charter school in Minneapolis. Allen spoke of having to go through “two districts and three schools” before getting the proper diagnosis and Indvidualized Education Plan (IEP) that is now helping her daughter succeed.

Before that, Allen said they had to deal with “referrals for bad behavior,” along with bullying from peers and assumptions, from school staff, that her daughter was simply a “bad kid.” She asked the candidates about the school district’s budget, and how analyses of it often show that inadequate resources flow to special education students and the staff who work with them. 

Felder said she supported the full-service community schools model as a strategy, where school communities decide how resources should be spent. She also favored lobbying legislators for more resources “for our students.” Bob Walser also spoke of wanting to press the state legislature for more funding for public schools, which he says has been in decline for the last twelve years or so. He then pointed out that he’s been endorsed by every legislator in his district, allowing him to start building relationships that could pay off later.

Asberry said she was about “kids, kids, kids,” and spoke directly to Allen, apologizing on behalf of the district, saying “we failed.” “When you reached out, someone should have pulled you in,” Asberry told her, before speaking of not just leadership, but “love and leadership” as a strategy for better meeting the needs of students and families. Her rival, Ira Jourdain, said he related with Allen’s story, and had been through “culturally intimidating IEP meetings” regarding his own school-age children.

“I was asked if my daughter lives in a shelter,” he told the crowd, “because she was having trouble paying attention in school.” Jourdain said school staff “needs to be racially and socially aware,” and spoke of his preference for giving kids more recess and freedom to move, rather than special education diagnoses. Kim Ellison further connected with Allen, saying she had taught her daughter. Kimberly Caprini also said she had been under-served as a student, which drove her to get involved in her own kids’ education.

SROs: Yes or No?

Next, special education assistant Malcolm Wells took a turn at the podium, asking all the candidates about a hot issue: Do they support the use of School Resource Officers, or SROs, in the schools? SROs are police officers, and their presence in the nation’s public schools has come under greater scrutiny in recent years, as awareness of the burgeoning school-to-prison pipeline grows.

Wells works at Minneapolis’s Harrison Education Center, the district’s high school for students with high emotional and behavior needs. He told the tale of a SRO at Harrison whose gun was “unclipped” and thus a source of worry for students. After a prolonged, “intense” interaction between students and the SRO, Wells said the officer told students he would “see them in the streets.” Wells was choked with emotion as he relayed the story, saying the students he works with are “still processing” what happened to northside resident Jamar Clark in 2015.

As the candidates answered Wells’s question about whether or not they would support the continued use of SROs in Minneapolis schools, noticeable differences emerged. Bob Walser said he didn’t necessarily support the use of SROs, but knew that some Minneapolis school staff liked having them in their buildings. “I would respect a community that said they wanted it, and would defer to their judgment,” he said.

His opponent, Josh Reimnitz, said he had recently voted, along with most school board members, to renew the SROs contract for another year, but that his decision was based on “mistakes.” He didn’t listen closely enough to the school board’s student liaison, Shaadia Munye, and her concerns. But, he promised, he is prepared to “make up for it” by working students to “shift the policy for a year from now,” when, presumably, the SRO contract will again be up for renewal.

His counterpart on the board, Tracine Asberry, said she voted no on the SRO contract, and spoke out against the idea that “being brown and black is a crime.” Having police officers in the schools “creates an unsafe space,” she told the crowd, and then said it is a “problem that we can’t even imagine a non-violent crisis intervention.” Board member Kim Ellison said she voted for the SRO contract because “we don’t have any alternatives right now.” When situations are unsafe or escalating, the only “alternative…is to call 911,” according to Ellison, who stated that the district’s superintendent, Ed Graff, would be looking into the issue in the year ahead.

Caprini echoed Walser’s take on this issue, saying she would respect those schools that want to have SROs, even though she herself wasn’t entirely comfortable with the police (outside of north Minneapolis, she emphasized). Felder, on the other hand, said emphatically that she was not in favor of SROs because she “spent sixteen days and four nights” at the Minneapolis Police Department’s Fourth Precinct last year, after Jamar Clark was killed by an officer.

“We’ve been talking about this for years,” she said, but nothing has happened. If we need a presence in the hallways of schools, in order to keep kids on task, then let them be community members and hall monitors, there to support the students and connect with their home lives, Felder said.  Ira Jourdain said schools need the “right tools” in order to adequately implement restorative justice practices, which would then eliminate the need for SROs. He also spoke of students needing a “program to help them recognize cultural differences in each other,” in order to avoid physical confrontations.

More Teachers of Color?

Next, Kenya Womack, who works at north Minneapolis’s Bethune Elementary School, asked about teachers of color and how to increase their ranks in the district. Reimnitz spoke of “leveraging partnerships,” as with summer tutoring programs such as Learning Works, which puts college students of color in front of Minneapolis students. He also spoke of the importance of “switching licensure opportunities” in Minnesota, saying it is hard for people coming in to get a teacher’s license here.

Walser spoke of teachers needing more respect, so that the job is a desirable and manageable one. He also said “teachers of color are leaned on” more than white teachers, and positioned as the “cultural competency” experts. But do they get paid more? No, Walser answered, in unison with some audience members.  Asberry said the issue is one of “retention,” not recruitment, and said the “culture of the profession needs to change.” Teaching should not “just reflect white culture,” she said, before stating that “If we’re really about racial equity, we will mess with everything.”

Jourdain spoke about recruitment and retention, using Native American teacher training programs as an example. He thinks Minneapolis does not actively nor adequately recruit these teachers, who go on to work in neighboring districts. For teachers that do come to Minneapolis, Jourdain said they need more support during their first three years in the classroom, and said he felt they should not be “judged” by their students’ test scores.

Ellison said she agreed with the other candidates’ ideas, and supports programs that could inspire young people to go into the teaching profession. Felder spoke of recruiting now for future teachers at Historically Black Colleges and Universities, and mentioned that there had been a funding stream, part of the “Choice is Yours” program, for training teachers of color, but that the money has been misspent. 

Caprini also agreed with the other candidates on this issue, and said the real question could be about why teachers of color have left the district over the years. We need to do “exit interviews” for these teachers, and help get to the root of the problem, she said.

“Do we see our kids as individuals?”

At this point in the evening, two storytellers remained. One was former district principal Carol Markham Cousins, who spoke of working with a young man at Stadium View, the high school for students in the county juvenile detention centerHe went from there to Stillwater State Prison, and Markham Cousins kept meeting with him. He’s spent his “whole career in segregated schools,” she told the candidates, “where other students were equally traumatized” by being put in special education programs. “Do we see our kids as individuals?” Markham Cousins wondered. “Do we interrupt the path to prison for these students?” 

Jourdain answered first, speaking of how different student populations get different diagnoses. White students are more likely to be labeled as autistic, he said, while students of color tend to get slapped with an emotional-behavioral disorder diagnosis. He said he favored a solution that “does not cost a penny”: extending recess for students across the district. Jourdain said he is on the site council for Bancroft Elementary School, which voted to implement a thirty minute recess policy for this year. Instead of pegging kids as trouble makers, give them time to play, he said.

Asberry said that “the way we label kids is the responsibility of teachers.” She spoke out strongly against what she said were the “ten percent of teachers responsible for ninety percent” of the labeling that goes on in Minneapolis. In a dramatic turn, Asberry said “we need to talk about the ugliness of our teachers” if we are going to rectify the situation Markham Cousins described. She then said, “I am not against teachers” but that, as a board member, students have been her priority.

Ellison said students should not be concentrated in special education-only sites, like Harrison or the district’s River Bend Education Center. She also said leadership is important, and that she would hold Superintendent Ed Graff “accountable” for looking closely at this issue. Caprini said she would like to close Harrison down, and said “implicit bias is a problem” that leads to teachers to label kids as special education students. We need to hold teachers’ “feet to the fire,” she said, and help them feel safe doing the “equity work” necessary to make changes.

Felder said it is important to remember that the “district hires teachers,” and that perhaps we have an HR problem in Minneapolis. She also said the new teachers union president, Michelle Weise, has been active and vocal regarding equity and justice issue, and is a member of Latina and LGBTQ communities. Felder then recalled the past summer, when several high-profile HR cases were publicly aired in Minneapolis, after teachers and support staff felt punished for speaking up for students, staff and citizens of color.

Walser said he is on a “personal journey” to understand his own “bias as a white male,” and that, while there is no “magic bullet,” he believes strong relationships between teachers and students are key. Reimnitz said this is an “issue of adult behavior,” and referenced Asberry’s statement that a small percentage of Minneapolis teachers are responsible for the vast majority of special education labeling. He also said there is a need for more “engaging curriculum” for district students, and cited a positive example of this from Harrison.

Communication Breakdown

Finally, Brie Monahan, a district teacher who works with English language learners told a story of how the district’s Multilingual department has been undone in recent years. It was once “very strong,” she noted, and provided students, teachers and staff with a high level of support. Then, leadership changes were made and the whole department was restructured–with no explanation or community input, in her experience. Emails now go “unanswered,” she said, and a “student population that flourishes with support” is now at the whim of these changes.

Minneapolis has “habitually excluded students, staff and families from decision-making,” Monahan said, asking candidates how they would address this issue and encourage better community engagement. Asberry spoke of her vote during 2015’s Reading Horizons curriculum debacle, when she stayed in her seat during a board meeting protest, while most of her colleagues walked out. She also said she stood alongside Southwest High School students who organized a Racial Justice Day last spring. 

Jourdain said this was a “familiar” story, and connected it to the recent seemingly abrupt changes made to the district’s citywide autism program. Ellison said she will “push district staff not to make changes without input,” and said it is a “systemic problem” that the district needs to deal with. Felder echoed this idea, and spoke of her years working as an organizer, where she put together parent and community meetings in places like neighborhood parks. “I’ve done the work,” she told the crowd. “I know what it looks like.”

Her District 2 rival, Caprini, said the district’s “funding needs to be implemented as intended,” and put to use in ways that directly impact schools. She says she’s seen a lot of students lost to charter schools that make big promises, and that Minneapolis needs to do a better job of bringing these families back. Reimnitz, from District 4, said “communication problems are endemic” to the Minneapolis schools, and that he has spoken “explicitly” about this with Graff.

Reimnitz also referenced his preference for problems being solved “closest to where they occur,” and spoke of the new policy manual for the board he’s been working on. Walser said, for him, “focusing on communication and engagement is key.” He also brought up a recent Star Tribune article that described kindergarten as the “new first grade,” with teachers being pushed to assess their young students in standardized ways. Instead, he said he believes in teachers being given the freedom to know their students and families as individuals, and that “data gathering” should take a back seat to this more personalized approach.

But…How Will the Board Evaluate Itself?

By this point in the night, there was little time for audience questions, even though many had been turned in. A student in the audience had written out a question asking board members how they will “measure the success of the changes” they advocate for. Ellison said the district often “drops the ball on good ideas,” and that knowing why changes are being made and what the intended outcome is would be helpful.

Reimnitz said it should be measured through “student outcomes” and staff and student surveys, designed to gauge people’s satisfaction with district operations. Walser pointedly said, “I think you get to decide,” and said the district’s ability to attract and retain students will be an indication of whether or not the board and district are successful. Felder said she will know her actions are successful when “our schools are desegregated again,” due to quality programming that draws students in. Caprini spoke of the need to ask students for their ideas, and said she will “keep doing what she is doing,” as an active parent volunteer.

For Jourdain, a positive uptick in graduation rates for Native and African-American students would be a good sign, as would a decrease in suspension rates for these same student populations. Asberry said she has been “knocking on 40,000 registered voters’ doors” during her re-election campaign, and believes in having an “open dialogue” with students, families and staff.

The evening ended on a note of unity, with all candidates saying they would support a home visit program for the district, akin to what St. Paul offers through the national Parent-Teacher Home Visit project. Finally, seventeen-year old organizer, student and artist Harun Abukar read a poem he wrote, touching on a distaste for “spoon-fed, white-washed curriculum,” poverty being “tokenized,” and the need for board members and other decision-makers to “start listening to us.”

Need more info before election day? Check out NOC’s School Board Candidate Q & A.

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Shocker! Minneapolis School Board Forum Group Buys Media Coverage

October 25, 2016

Not many people showed up to an October 13 Minneapolis school board forum, according to an article in the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder, a venerated newspaper based in Minneapolis.

The MSR has been around for eighty-two years, making it the “oldest Black-owned business in Minnesota,” and an essential source for the kind of community news and insight that is hard to find elsewhere. I am guessing, but do not know for sure, that the Spokesman-Recorder runs a lean ship, financially speaking. They have just one staff writer, Charles Hallman, listed online.

It’s tough to survive in the news business these days (unless you are TMZ, or on a 24/7 Trump watch, I suppose). Just ask the staff at the St. Paul Pioneer Press, who have struck up a #NewsMatters campaign–complete with t-shirts–designed to let everybody know that, in their words, “Minnesota’s oldest newspaper is being eviscerated.” On a carnival-like ride, the Pioneer Press, which has been around for 170 years, has been sold and resold, rebranded, repackaged, slapped up, and trimmed down–and its fate now lies in the hands of something called the Alden Global Capital Group. 

Dave Orick, a Pioneer Press reporter and an officer with the Minnesota Newspaper Guild, had this to say in an October 25 press release:

More people are seeing our coverage now than ever before because of the reach of our digital products. The Twin Cities ranks No. 1 among the top 20 markets for newspaper readers and 70 percent of east metro newspaper readers choose the Pioneer Press.

Although the paper remains profitable, Alden Global Capital has continued to cut staff to line the pockets of its investors. The loss of so many reporters, photographers, copy editors, circulation, accounting and maintenance employees has impacted the communities we serve.

It has meant cutting back on local coverage of education, sports, the arts and a large amount of the investigative journalism that holds our public institutions accountable. We publish fewer local photos that visually tell the stories of St. Paul and the east metro. We’ve lost a measure of quality control and institutional knowledge as our copy desk has been decimated.

Orick’s press release includes an unusual request: “We’re asking civic-minded community leaders to step forward and help the Minnesota Newspaper and Communications Guild, the union representing Pioneer Press employees, find a local owner that values the important role this newspaper plays in the Twin Cities.”

Help the Pioneer Press find an owner who cares about news, investigative reporting and local storytelling. 

And then, look closely at the Minneapolis school board forum article published in the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder. The forum was sponsored by the Animate the Race campaign, a special election season project of local, very well-financed education reform interests, such as Minnesota Comeback.

In the article about the forum, written by Spokesman-Recorder staff writer Hallman, Animate the Race organizers and funders–Daniel Sellers and Bill Graves, respectively–are quoted in positive terms. Graves also puts in a plug for the group’s next forum, on November 3, saying he appreciates “how much everyone is excited about taking time…to build understanding and awareness.”

Then, at the very bottom of the article, is this important note:

This story was sponsored by Animate the Race.

Uh, wait a minute. Animate the Race not only convened the forum and paid for “fellows” to help lead it, but also bought press coverage for it? And that press coverage includes genteel quotes from Animate the Race staff, with no deeper look at who they are? Sellers, for example, had a heavy hand in the money-drenched 2014 Minneapolis school board race, and Graves is a clear supporter of charter schools and education reform interests. His foundation has even given money to the employer of current school board candidate, Josh Reimnitz. While Animate the Race claims neutrality and a simple, informative stance, you really “don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.”

This doesn’t sound right. Last week, I emailed Hallman to ask him about this, but I haven’t received a response yet. Maybe there is a good explanation for this PR dressed as journalism that isn’t immediately obvious to the casual reader’s eye.

Or maybe not. Maybe–no surprise–our news outlets are for sale, in this time of increased pressure to stay afloat. Reader, and voter, beware. 

Post Script: Charles Hallman, Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder reporte, has said he was not responsible for the note about Animate the Race sponsoring his article, and that it was put there by the paper’s editors. Also, Mr. Hallman reports not receiving my original email inquiry, sent on October 20, in regards to this matter. He has forwarded my inquiry on to his editors. If I learn more, I will further update this post.

I can say with certainty that no secret group is paying for these blog posts! My work is entirely funded by my very kind and generous readers. Thank you to those who have already donated! 

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From Laney with Love

October 22, 2016

The other night, while walking my dog, I ran into a neighbor who was coming home from work. We exchanged kid-related small talk before she said, “So, how’s your blog coming along?”

Er, slowly. This year, I have the good fortune to be engaged in a long-term writing project at north Minneapolis’s Lucy Laney elementary school. It’s been a dream come true for me, so far, but it means I can’t spin this blog out as frequently as I’d like to (guest posts gladly accepted!). My school year-long project at Laney will culminate in a longer piece of writing, so stay tuned.

There is a lot to absorb at Laney, a school where almost every kid lives in poverty, according to federal standards, and close to twenty percent are homeless or highly mobile. The school year started with gunshots along Penn Avenue, almost directly across the street from the school’s front door. In July, a two-year old was killed by gunfire near the intersection of Penn and Lowry Avenues, a few blocks from Laney.

These statistics and close encounters with gun violence are real, but they are not the whole story.

laney-run-1

Gearing up for the Laney Fun Run

On Wednesday, October 19, the school held its first-ever “Laney Family Fun Run.” It was a short jog, really–just a 3K around the neighborhood. But, for Laney Assistant Principal, Lisa Pawelak, it was a chance for the school community to walk together, “into the light.”

Pawelak lives in the neighborhood and knows the sound of gunshots very well. They often wake her up at night, she told the Laney staff and families gathered for the event. And so she wanted to do something that got the school outside, to “take back some of the outdoor space” that can seem forever lost.

laney-run-2

Ready to run

The joy was palpable. A small crowd moved together out of the school and down a long sidewalk to where the buses usually pick up and drop off kids. Some people were in their running best, while the kids jockeyed for position at the starting line. The air was cold, crisp, but still bathed in the golden glow of fall, under a brilliant blue sky. 

Just before the starting countdown, a neighborhood guy named “Big Mike” pulled to the front of the line in his pick up truck, pulling a neon sign lit up with messages about Laney love and Northside pride, Big Mike’s job was to provide cover at the front, while a bunch of cherry-lit squad cars were scattered around, ready to roll behind the end of the line.

We’re going to walk into the neighborhood, not out of it, Pawelak promised, “bringing light” along the way.

laney-at-wirth-1

Maps, paths, leaves

This echoes a light-filled side of Laney I am getting to know well. On Friday, October 14, the third grade classes I have been paired with (as an independent writer) spent the day at nearby Theodore Wirth park, on an “Outdoor Adventure Day” with the  Loppet Foundation. I arrived after the kids, and sprinted to catch up with a group setting out on an orienteering walk through the woods and wetlands. 

One boy’s spontaneous burst of joy and wonder has been ringing in my ear’s ever since: “Whoa! What if the whole world was made of water?!” 

Later, I joined a different bunch of kids, where I was quickly bombarded with hugs from my new, pint-sized friends. 

laney-at-wirth-2

Learning about leaves

journaling-at-wirth

Journaling at Wirth

wirth-journal

Drawing plants

Before the Fun Run began, at a required “State of the School” talk, Laney principal Mauri Melander walked a group of parents, staff and students through Laney’s data report. The school’s attendance looks good, and its discipline rates are improving, but test scores continue to hover at the low end of somebody’s bell curve. This prompted a conversation among the staff and parents about how to “show how smart our children are,” despite the school’s struggle to climb higher on the test score ladder.

From the back of the multi-purpose room, a dad spoke up: “How do we change the narrative? How do we show the thriving that is going on here, despite the metrics?”

One Fun Run and Outdoor Adventure day at a time, perhaps.

“Children must be taught how to think, not what to think.” — Margaret Mead

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MinnCAN Shifts as Minneapolis School Board Race Gets “Animated”

October 1, 2016

In a September 28 email sent to supporters, Andrea Roethke, interim director of the Minneapolis-based education reform group, MinnCAN, announced that the group has disbanded.

First launched in 2011, MinnCAN–a franchise of the national 50CAN reform outfit--rode into Minnesota on a wave of tobacco lawsuit money, thanks to the Robins Kaplan Miller and Ciresi law firm. In the 1990’s, the firm won a significant case against the tobacco industry, earning more than $400 million in fees. To handle this abundance, the RKMC (Robins Kaplan Miller and Ciresi) Foundation for Children was created. 

As documented in an earlier series of blog posts, the RKMC Foundation then provided seed money for a number of billionaire-backed education reform groups, including MinnCAN, Students for Education Reform, and Educators for Excellence (E4E), so they could set up shop in the Twin Cities.

The RKMC Foundation also gave $30 million to the Minneapolis Foundation, helping to establish an immensely funded, powerfully connected cabal of local reform interests. The highpoint of this, if it can be called that, came in 2013, through a coordinated yet short-lived “RESET Education” campaign. This campaign smacked of either naiveté or hubris, with an ill-advised series of embarrassing public events (co-sponsored by Minnesota Public Radio) that were little more than PR plugs for charter schools, Teach for America and the like. (RESET died out quickly, but fluttered back to life as part of an “education ecosystem” concept, promoted by the local Bush Foundation and built around similar philanthropist-driven reform ideals such as school choice.)

MinnCAN, until recently, was led by former Teach for America employee, Daniel Sellers. The group shared space in southeast Minneapolis with local, but now defunct, charter school champions, Charter School Partners.

While running MinnCAN, Sellers also got heavily involved in the 2014 Minneapolis school board race. That race garnered a fair amount of local and national publicity, partly for the ugly tenor of it, and partly because it featured an eye-popping influx of hundreds of thousands of dollars in outside, reform-soaked money. Sellers played a key role in this through his 2014 side job as chair of a new political action group called the Minneapolis Progressive Education Fund.

Sellers’ Fund successfully lobbied for money from heavy hitters like Michael Bloomberg, the reform-friendly former mayor of New York, and Arthur Rock, a lesser known Teach for America board member and venture capitalist from California. Their money was used to promote two candidates for the school board–Don Samuels and Iris Altamirano–and to portray locally-funded incumbent candidate, Rebecca Gagnon, as beholden to special interests. (Gagnon and Samuels ended up winning seats on the board.)

Like the 2013 RESET Education effort, the 2014 Minneapolis race was off-putting for many, with its aggressive tone, nasty campaign literature and flashy hints of the purchasing power of plutocrats. Sellers didn’t seem to take any hits for his role in this, as he kept on at MinnCAN until earlier this year, when he stepped down and Andrea Rotheke took over as interim director.

Rotheke’s goodbye-to-MinnCAN note makes it clear that neither Sellers, nor the apparently flourishing local reform “ecosystem,” is going anywhere soon:

We have had the honor of working alongside many leaders in education advocacy, from the founders of the charter movement to long-time champions for educational equity to partners leading change within our schools.

We’ve also been thrilled to watch the growth of the local education advocacy ecosystem. Students for Education Reform has grown into a thriving chapter, Educators 4 Excellence has emerged to empower local teacher voices—including many of our own teacher policy fellows—and Minnesota Comeback has flourished with support from MinnCAN’s former deputy director. Later this year, this coalition will be joined by a new organization led by former MinnCAN executive director Daniel Sellers, which will further add to the strength of the ecosystem.

Sellers’ new organization, in fact, will be called Ed Allies, and will continue MinnCAN’s reform work, with the ongoing support of local philanthropists, according to a recent Pioneer Press article. He also appears to be taking an active, though less prominent, role in this year’s school board race. Back in August, an advertisement was placed on a local “e-Democracy” forum by a “Daniel Martin,” who was actually Daniel Sellers–according to the required email address that was provided.

Daniel Martin/Sellers’s advertisement was for an “Animate the Race” campaign, regarding the 2016 Minneapolis school board race. “We’re seeking 10-15 Minneapolis residents to become Animate the Race Fellows,” the notice stated, before explaining that chosen participants will earn $1000 for helping to “create a public conversation about the Minneapolis school board race.” 

The ad lists an August 19 deadline, and makes it plain that the Animate the Race campaign is “intentionally seeking to elevate a racially, geographically, and ideologically diverse set of perspectives.” But further on down, at the bottom of the page, sits a small, italicized, legally required disclaimer:

The Animate the Race project is funded in part by MN Comeback, a 501c3 non-profit organization and The JD Graves Foundation, a private family foundation. MN Comeback and the JD Graves Foundation are non-partisan and do not take positions in political campaigns.

Ah ha. That’s it. Minnesota Comeback is the new face of the reform movement in Minneapolis (having absorbed Charter School Partners and the RESET campaign, and so on) and Sellers, who has been involved with the group from the beginning, as a policy advisor, is apparently helping lead their voter outreach efforts. (Former Charter School Partners director Al Fan now heads up Minnesota Comeback.) 

Aaron Glassman's The Harbormaster

Aaron Glassman’s The Harbormaster

Side note: In July, I wrote a blog post about Minnesota Comeback and the likelihood that the group–which is a franchise, or “harbormaster,” in a reform network called Education Cities–would play a key role in the 2016 school board race. Read it here!

The Graves Foundation is a local, private foundation that has given hundreds of thousands of dollars to Minnesota Comeback, as well as to a variety of highly-touted charter school chains and the Minneapolis Public Schools (in part to support the district’s school autonomy plan, called Community Partnership Schools). In the interest of promoting “Rigorous and Responsive K-12” schools, the Foundation has been similarly good to the local education reform ecosystem, doling out thousands of dollars in grants to Students for Education Reform, Educators for Excellence (E4E) and Teach for America.

In June, 2016, the Graves Foundation also gave a $12, 650 grant to incumbent school board candidate Josh Reimnitz’s employer, Students Today Leaders Forever, for a “student leadership retreat.” That’s fine. But it makes the idea of neutrality harder to swallow, then, from a Graves Foundation/Minnesota Comeback funded “Animate the Race” campaign. 

Although Sellers’ ad called for 10-15 Fellows, so far, just four are listed on the Animate the Race website, and one of them, Karen Shapiro, was already a MinnCAN blogging Fellow. 

No grant, no guru, no outside funding source. My work is entirely funded by my very kind and generous readers. Thank you to those who have already donated!

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Wow! Big Buddies Trump Testing for this Kid

September 22, 2016

For the past week, there has been one burning, exciting, riveting, absorbing question on my seven-year old daughter’s mind: Who will be my big buddy?

She goes to a K-8 school, where the older students–in this case, 5th and 6th graders–act as big buddies to little kids like her, mostly in grades K-2. As a second grader, this will be her third year of getting to know a big kid, and the thrill of this has been zinging up, down and all around her for days now. 

She had to have her picture taken at the South High School pow wow in May.

This morning she awoke at 6:30, despite having gone to bed late because of the big storm that rolled through right at bedtime. As we tried to snuggle in, get sleepy and read a chapter of our current favorite book (Super Fudge!), the rain clattered down, making it so hard to fall asleep. But she was up on time, shuffling into the kitchen with one thing on her mind: today is the day she finds out who her big buddy will be!

“I woke up early because my mind was saying, ‘wow! wow! wow!,'” she told me excitedly. She then launched into a thirty minute, off and on monologue about which older kid she would be paired with. Would it be our neighbor? Probably not, because he’s a boy. Would it be Greta, her buddy from last year? No, of course not. Greta is too old now.

Who will it be?

The anticipation of this has propelled my daughter to school on time every day this week, and that’s saying something. Her school starts at 7:30 a.m., which is a merciless hour for a kid whose natural rhythm does not allow her to easily get to sleep–no matter how tired I assume she is–before 9 p.m.

This experience is hers alone. My older three kids also had big buddies as first and second graders, and were then big buddies themselves, but I don’t recall them organizing their every thought around who their buddies were, or would be, and what they would do together as buddies. (The buddy relationship takes place during the school day, maybe once a week, with the older kids coming down to read and talk with the younger ones.)

This year, we are going to sing a song together, she told me rapturously. Music + the company of a big kid? That is the kind of equation my spirited girl can’t get enough of. Math worksheets? Not so much. If she could arrange her day, she would have music class at least twice, she told me. That’s where her heart is; that’s the kind of thing that gets her out the door.

I can’t help but contrast her bubbling joy over her big buddy with a letter that was sent home from school yesterday. Your child, the letter said, will soon get the chance to show what they know about reading and math, by taking the “MAP” test next week. The letter was signed by the school’s Reading Specialist/Testing Coordinator, a person I’ve never met.

Make sure he or she eats a good breakfast and arrives to school on time, the letter advised.

Nah, I don’t think so. Of course I do my best to make sure she eats a good breakfast every morning, even though she is often only hungry for cookies at 6:45 a.m. That’s not the issue.

The issue is the “chance to show what she knows” by sitting for a computerized, standardized test as a seven-year old. Ironically, the notice came on the day that we had her fall conference with her teacher. During that conference, which lasted close to thirty minutes, we sat with my daughter’s teacher and the student teacher who will be working in her classroom all year.

The teacher was prepared. She knows this kid. She had the standard assessments done, about where my daughter sits with her emerging–very emerging–reading skills, and her sufficient math skills. She’s “behind,” according to the reading assessment scale (called F&P) that was altered with the onset of the Common Core State Standards. It is an alphabetical scale, and the level B, where my daughter was last year, was once a perfectly respectable place to be for a first grader. 

With Common Core, though, the scale was tweaked in the name of rigor, so that a first grader at level B now raises red flags. Kindergarteners are supposed to get to level B or C; first graders are supposed to fly past it. My second grade girl is still hovering around the B-C level. 

The kids haven’t changed; the Common Core-adjusted scale has.

The point is, my daughter’s teacher has already met with us and mapped out where my kid is, socially and academically. She was her teacher last year, too, thanks to the looping structure of the school.

The MAP test will take place in the school’s Media Center, not the students’ regular classroom. That’s because–shh!–the test is top-secret and there can be no cheating! Therefore, the kids have to leave their literacy-rich classrooms, with the alphabet and words and numbers all over the place, for the more discreet confines of the library. It is in these spaces–one child, one computer screen, no help allowed–that the dominant culture of individualism and individually crafted success or failure really blossoms. (My daughter won’t be there, as I have opted her out of all standardized tests, using the district’s own Opt Out form. Simply sign and return to your child’s school.)

The MAP test results are also used by the Minneapolis Public Schools to evaluate teachers, according to the science–considered junk by most scholars–of “VAM,” or Value-Added Measures. These measures are supposed to measure growth (where a student starts, and where he or she ends up at the end of the school year), and assess how far teachers take their students, according to the test results. The MAP isn’t timed, so kids can either click through it, or spend hours agonizing over each question.

Some teachers, parents and administrators might find these test results worthwhile, for purposes of planning and diagnosing which kids are in need of intervention or more challenging work. But nothing will take the place of being able to sit for half an hour with my daughter’s teacher, asking questions, bouncing ideas off of her, and otherwise trying to learn how best to support my daughter in her process of becoming.

Becoming what? It’s too soon to tell. For today, it is all about her brain shouting “wow! wow! wow!” as she gets ready to meet her big buddy, at last.

It turns out that Americans are at the far end of the spectrum in their preference for competition over cooperation; for self-promotion over humility; for analytical over holistic thinking; for individual rather than collective success; for direct rather than indirect communication; for hierarchical rather than egalitarian conceptions of status. So in school we…control and direct and measure our children’s learning in excruciating detail, where many other societies assume children will learn at their own pace and don’t feel it necessary or appropriate to control their everyday activities and choices. In other words, what we take for granted as a “normal” learning environment is not at all normal to millions of people around the world.

–Carol Black, “A Thousand Rivers”

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Minneapolis School Staff Fight for “Indispensable” Employee’s Job

September 13, 2016

Another letter writing campaign has been burning along email chains in the Minneapolis Public Schools. This time, it is on behalf of Multilingual department staffer John Wolfe. His job is on the line, apparently due to the kind of “adult interests” that education reform purveyors famously love to rail against. (Until they can’t, but that’s another story.)

One-time Teach for America superstar, Michelle Rhee

One-time Teach for America superstar, Michelle Rhee

Wolfe has worked for Minneapolis’s Multilingual department for the last six years, as a compliance and data guru. He came on just as the department, which serves English language learners (ELL) and their teachers, was trying to crawl out from under a federal Office of Civil Rights (OCR) Complaint. That complaint found that the Minneapolis schools were not adequately meeting the needs of non-native English speakers by failing to keep track of their progress or offer the proper support services. 

Wolfe reportedly worked closely with Jana Hilleren, who lead the Multilingual department and helped resolve the civil rights complaint. Hilleren, though, has since been pushed out of the district. Those familiar with Wolfe’s work describe it in the kind of saintly terms ascribed to many outliers in the Minneapolis schools (who have often met a similar fate). Here’s a sample:

  • Before John, everything was hit or miss. It was hard to know which students were getting ELL services; it was a free for all, which led to the OCR complaint.
  • John came in 5 or 6 years ago. He was key. Very teacher-leader focused, versus a top down approach. Teachers knew they could rely on him. People felt like they were part of something bigger, and a bigger effort for these kids. He built a compliance system, and did all the data work of monitoring who was getting what services. He was at the heart of rebuilding Minneapolis’s Multilingual Department.
  • Michael Goar started an employee of the month program, and only did it once. It was John.
  • John worked nearly 80 hours per work, living and breathing ELL and MPS.
  • He held “Saturday Sessions,” that paid teachers to learn, grow, and develop materials for district, state, and national ELL students to gain access to success.
  • Brought a 24 hour interpreter service, called the “Language Line,” to the district. According to MPS’s website, “This service is to ensure effective communication between schools and families regardless of a family’s home language. This service provides live interpreters in any language at any time of the day.”
  • Provides iPads, apps, research and “fast responses” to classroom teachers.

Now, in a scene that smacks of unfortunate adult political interests, Wolfe’s status as an employee has been made shaky, as part of a general deconstruction of the Multilingual house that Hilleren built. 

Warning: This is where the adult “concerns” really rear their messy heads. From 2010 on, Wolfe worked alongside HIlleren and teachers to build the Multilingual department into something people rallied around. In 2014, however, change blew in, on the heels of a surprise $5 million funding allocation for district ELL programming. There was a catch, though: Hilleren and her team were reportedly left out of the decision-making and planning for that new money, which was diverted from other departments within MPS at the behest of then-CEO, Michael Goar. 

The $5 million in funds was put under the management of a new employee–former assistant state education commissioner, Elia Bruggeman–and a new Global Education department. By late 2015, Hilleren was gone, and the Multilingual department was placed under the purview of Bruggeman and the Global Ed division. 

Fast forward to the spring of 2016. In a shakeup, the Multilingual department staff was whittled down from fifteen to just a handful of district-level employees, leaving it in skeletal shape. Wolfe was one of the employees left without a clear position for this school year, although he reportedly has been given a part-time district job. The word swirling through district headquarters is that anyone from the Hilleren era is in danger of being swept out, while the Multilingual department itself is on the brink of being starved. There is no money for textbooks, apparently, or for staff to attend the annual state ELL conference.

The extra $5 million diverted to ELL programming in 2014 has been spent on a variety of staffing and programming whose value cannot easily be assessed by the untrained eye (district sources say there is no per-pupil cost analysis of where that money has gone). A lingering concern, apparently, is where the new Global Ed division is headed. Is there a plan? A focus? A structure in place, that will help explain the staffing and leadership changes? If so, no one seems able to articulate it.

Back to John Wolfe. Those who know him well sing his praises, while acknowledging his role as a maverick who can be tough to manage, but delivers on behalf of students and teachers. As politics threaten to upend the ELL department Wolfe helped create, his career in the district hangs in limbo. The staff who have come to value his support, however, are not letting him go quietly.

From a recent letter sent to Superintendent Ed Graff by a longtime Minneapolis teacher:

 John is the single-most responsive individual that I have ever connected with in an administrative position. He listens to us and supports us. 

John has given his heart and soul to this district.  He is passionate about helping EL teachers and students alike.  He works harder than anyone I know and may be the smartest man I have ever met.   Simply letting John walk from this district would be a travesty.  You will receive many more letters like mine from so many of the excellent EL teachers in our district saying the same things.  I would not write a letter like this for just anyone.  Please listen to all of our personal testimony. John means so much to this district and especially to the teachers of our Multilingual Department.

John Wolfe is irreplaceable.  His loss to the EL students and teachers in this district would be immense.  I am writing to ask you to retain John Wolfe in the district and renew his contract within the Multilingual Department.

So far, supporters say, there has been scant response from a district stuck in–but perhaps trying to crawl out of–damage control mode.

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Minneapolis Superintendent Sings Prince, Peddles Hope

August 28, 2016

Tomorrow, August 29, school starts in Minneapolis. Friday, August 26, new district superintendent, Ed Graff, did something that hasn’t been done in years.

Using story, song and warm fuzzy-like swirls of hope, Graff delivered a “State of the Schools” address at Minneapolis’s Orchestra Hall. Displaying a knack for crowd-pleasing action, Graff also joined the newly-formed Minneapolis Public Schools’s Intergenerational Choir (what a lovely idea) in a medley of Prince songs, including his hit for the Bangles, “Manic Monday–surely intended as a nod to the tangle of emotions parents, students and staff have on the eve of a new school year.

The showmanship worked, judging by the beaming faces, clapping hands and renewed energy bouncing around Orchestra Hall’s golden interior. Graff somehow managed to walk through a PowerPoint about the Minneapolis schools without once mentioning test scores, the achievement gap or any other typical “failure factory” attributes. 

Instead, Graff floated in on the reverberations of a “cheers and chants” performance by students from north Minneapolis’s Lucy Laney Pre-K – 5 school. The kids, part of Laney’sBeaconsafter-school program, shook the house with shouts of “Yeah, I’m hyped/Yeah, I’m ready!” The audience joined in, helping to set the stage for Graff’s upbeat address.

Graff’s theme for the morning was “MPS Strong,” and In his walk-through of what that means, he focused on the good by drawing attention to student voices and adult and kid success stories. There was a montage of young students defining what strong means to them; it was sweet, but not cloyingly so, with kids saying strong means someone is “healthy, fit, strong of heart,” and “confident,” mentally, physically and academically.

Graff prefaced the kids’ view by noting that “being strong doesn’t mean we’re perfect,” but insisted that “our challenges aren’t the most important part of our story.” He later highlighted the success story of a boy from the River Bend Education Center, which serves kids with high behavioral and emotional needs, and a young woman who just graduated from the district’s Longfellow School, for pregnant and parenting teens, and is on her way to community college.

Graff also called attention to Edward Davis, a former special education assistant at River Bend who is about to start his first year as a fifth grade science teacher at Lucy Laney school. Davis was part of the first cohort to go through the district’s Grow Your Own program, designed to diversify MPS’s teaching pool by helping classroom assistants become licensed teachers. Davis’s toddler daughter was there in his arms, stopping the show with her excited cries of, “There’s Daddy right there!,” every time Davis’s image flashed on the big screen in front of the crowd.

The jubilance of Davis’s young daughter infected the somewhat sparse crowd, as many classroom teachers were back in their buildings getting ready to welcome students on Monday. (The event was live-streamed, and can be viewed here.) Graff ended the morning with a brief turn at the piano, before adding his voice to the intergenerational choir’s tribute to Prince, a MPS grad from the “warm fuzzy” era. Wherever Minneapolis students are engaging in the fine arts, Graff declared, “I’ll be there.” 

This was enough to buoy the crowd of administrators, school board members, teachers and staff (along with Mayor Betsy Hodges), and send them off on their Friday–without the usual mountain of edu-jargon and acronyms to hide what goes on behind classroom doors. The whole scene may have prompted the more cynical among them to ask what a nice guy like Graff is doing in a place like this (and how long will he last?).

However, three personnel developments over the summer indicate that perhaps MPS, under and inspired by Graff, might be turning a new page. First, Washburn theater teacher Crystal Spring’s job was reinstated, after she was threatened with dismissal by MPS’s Employee Relations division for being arrested on her own time (the charges were later dropped). Observers said the harsh treatment Spring received from HR was nothing new, and feared her quick reinstatement came only through public pressure.

Then, Washburn staffer Elisabeth Geschiere, also facing HR discipline she felt was unfair and unjust, had a “not recommended for rehire” letter put in her employee file. After public pressure, a meeting with Graff and then a further sit-down with Employee Relations staffers, Geschiere has reported that this letter–which could bar her from future employment in MPS–has been removed from her file.

Finally, in recent days, Barton Open’s principal, Jonas Beugen, was reportedly reassigned within the district, after months of internal and public protest from some members of the Barton community. Initially, Chief of Schools Michael Thomas and Graff both stated that Beugen would stay, despite an emotional outpouring at the July 12 Minneapolis board meeting. Staff at Barton, along with some parents, persisted in asking for an actual investigation into the climate at the school.

Thomas responded–the day before the Barton’s August 25 Meet Your Teacher event–with a Robocall indicating that retired MPS principal Cynthia Mueller will be helping lead the school this year. Thomas’s message did not mention Beugen, but it became known that he has been reassigned, and Mueller, along with new Assistant Principal Diane Bagley will be at the helm.

Insiders say this is surprising action by district administrators, who often have a reputation for delivering hard-edged decisions without rank-and-file input, or evidence of “best practices.” Is this because of Graff and his reputation for thorough decision-making?

Too soon to tell, but, like a blank composition book in a unscuffed backpack, there is hope.