Monthly Archives: April 2016

Do Not Interrupt a Girl Doing a Dandelion

April 25, 2016

I will admit it: my six year-old daughter is late for school almost every day. There are a few reasons why. One, she is the youngest of four kids, and thus, our sleep schedule is so different for her than it was for her older siblings. When they were in first grade, I am pretty sure they were in bed by 8 p.m. at the latest. These days, we are lucky if the youngest is in bed by nine. 

Going to bed at 9, and hopefully falling asleep by 9:30, makes it tough for my daughter to be up, dressed, fed and in school by its 7:30 start time (driven by busing needs, I think). In fact, most mornings, it feels impossible. My husband and I both work from home, which is a blessing and a curse. We don’t have to be at a job site by 8 a.m.; this means we often can let her sleep in a bit.

This morning, she finally got out of bed at 7:30, after more than a half an hour of us trying to shake and cajole her awake. Once up, she was cheery–eating a big breakfast, talking animatedly with her siblings, and asking to hear that Prince song again, as the singer’s recent death has been a big topic of conversation in our Minneapolis household (“My Name is Prince” is her current favorite).

Violetta 1

Violetta

At last, my patience with her extended morning routine ran out. She rushed upstairs at the last minute for “one more thing.” I turned away to check emails and organize my thinking for the day. When I turned back to her, she was seated at the dining room table, surrounded by a pile of pens and pencils. “Come on, Anna,” I said with exasperation, “You’ve got to get to school.”

Without looking up or stopping her pen, she said, “Mom, do not interrupt a girl doing a dandelion.” A dandelion? I took a look at the little notebook I had given her once, as a cast-off from a conference I’d attended. Inside, she had started to make her own collection of Shopkins characters (after four kids, I’ve learned not to actually purchase many of these fad toys, so she’s making her own). Last night, she told me, she created “Violetta,” a violet-colored, flower-shaped creature with a smiley face. Now, she was working on “Dandelion.”

I looked on her page and saw a round dandelion flower with a face. The eyes are closed, and five purple lines float in the air above the dandelion’s head. She finally dashed off to school, in the pouring rain, before I could ask her to explain the picture to me. Were the slashes supposed to be purple rain? It’s possible–that song has been playing everywhere this weekend–but I don’t want to assume, in her absence.

My own connection to Prince is about me, not him. I was a little too young to fully ride the Purple Rain wave when it hit Minneapolis in the early ’80’s, but I do recall–vividly, deeply–how every high school social experience I had (from attending awkward, crepe paper-strewn dances to screaming around corners in my dad’s smoke blue Saab) was accompanied by the Prince albums Controversy, 1999 and Purple Rain.

My body and soul rejoiced then, as now, with Prince’s explosion of bawdiness and reverence. In the hours and days following his death, I have learned more about the person behind the flash, and some of my favorite stories have to do with Prince’s time in the Minneapolis Public Schools, where I grew up, and where my late-to-school daughter is now a student. 

His Minneapolis classmate, Eben Shapiro, penned a quick piece for the Wall Street Journal, on April 21, the day Prince died. Hindsight and shock can undoubtedly color our memories, but Shapiro’s seem pretty consistent with other things I’ve read about Prince:

When I was in seventh grade at Bryant Junior High School, an old three-story brick public school in inner-city Minneapolis, we all knew that one kid was the best player in the band. He played the trumpet, and he handled many of the band’s arrangements. We all thought the Bryant band’s rendition of “Shaft” was even better than the original.

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Dandelion

….At school he had free run of the band room. Many days, he spent hours playing the piano, alone in a small glass-enclosed practice room. 

My heart stopped, of course, with this: “At school he had free run of the band room.” I don’t want to use Prince’s life or death to make a point about ed reform, but I do wonder. How many Prince-like kids today are we allowing “free run” of anything? Where would Prince’s talents and ambitions fit today, on the college and career pipeline?

My oldest two kids go to South High, near Prince’s now torn down high school, Minneapolis Central. Yesterday, a letter from a South High teacher’s mom popped up on Facebook, and on South’s website. The teacher’s mom, Jenise Doty, went to Central High with Prince, and reflected on who he was as a student:

As a kid, Prince was short, shy and not remarkable looking. He was not as popular a basketball player as his half brother.

But he loved music, and he pursued it relentlessly (sometimes skipping class to do it).

Today is a perfect opportunity for us and our students to take another look at that person at school that we have been underestimating. Look left, look right and look within and ask ourselves: how awesome would it be if this person found something they really loved to do, worked at it, and shared it with others? You don’t have to be world famous to have impact.

Today, I guess, is also a perfect day not to interrupt a girl when she’s drawing a dandelion.

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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St. Paul Mom Fights to Keep Galtier Community School Open

April 21, 2016

Ms. Gant, a St. Paul Public Schools parent, is in the process of adopting two young boys, and, because the situation is delicate, has asked that only her last name be used in this story. But–it is her story, and she wants to tell it.

Gant has three children: a baby boy, and the two foster children–twin boys–that she and her husband are adopting. The twins are kindergartners at Galtier K-5 Community School in St. Paul’s Midway neighborhood, and Gant loves the school. Last year, it was not clear whether or not–or when–Gant and her husband would be able to adopt the boys, so Gant says she missed the district’s spring enrollment deadline. 

Shawn Stibbins, Galtier principal

Instead, she had to trek down to the St. Paul student placement center, and was directed to sign the twins up for kindergarten at Como Park Community School, the one closest to her house. But Gant toured Como Park, and the atmosphere just didn’t feel right to her, which she says “meant a lot.” 

Gant and her husband decided to also check out Galtier, another school near their home. There, they attended an Open House, but it was unlike any they’d ever seen before. “So many teachers were around, and coming up to us. I thought, ‘Either these people are crazy, or they really want to talk to us,'” she remembers with a laugh.

Another thing Gant and her husband noticed? The school’s principal, Shawn Stibbins, was manning the grill. “My husband thought, ‘That can’t be him!,” Gant says, but it was. “The whole thing was just beautiful.” Another teacher came up to Gant and offered to hold her baby, so she and her husband could look around the school with their twins. 

It all felt very non-traditional and welcoming to Gant, who is an African-American parent, and well aware of the stereotypes about who does and who doesn’t get involved in their kids’ education. But when she asked Galtier teachers how often she could volunteer at the school, they didn’t miss a beat, telling her, “This is your school, too.” The message Gant heard? Come as often as you’d like.

And she has. Gant has thrown herself into Galtier, but not quite in the way she’d expected. Shortly after her boys started kindergarten, just this fall, she heard rumors that the district was planning to close the school, citing low enrollment (the school is about half full). Instead of planning bake sales to fund an art program or a field trip, the Parent Teacher Organization (PTO) has had to launch a PR campaign on behalf of Galtier.

“I took my three boys with me on a Saturday this winter,” Gant recalls. “We hit the barbershop, the clinic. We recruited families to come and check out the school. And for our Open House, we had 17 families show up. Last year, there were only two.” What Gant didn’t realize is that the St. Paul Public Schools left this kind of recruiting up to parents.

“We asked the district to help us highlight the school and how great it is. Well, that didn’t happen. We asked them to update Galtier’s brochure, which still showed kids in red uniforms, from when the school was a science magnet.” The district converted Galtier from a magnet school to a community school in 2013, when the school also underwent a substantial, grant-funded overhaul. 

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Fellow protester!

When Galtier became a community school, it lost enrollment, and it lost the confidence of some neighborhood families, according to Gant. As a science magnet, Galtier’s numbers were higher (partly because it could bus kids in from outside the neighborhood). It was also able to offer a wide array of programming, such as art classes, that Galtier, as a community school with fewer students, has not been able to afford.

But Gant says that hasn’t stopped the school from becoming a great place to be. After getting a redesign, it offers open classroom spaces and flexible, small groups, so that kids can work more at their skill level–and not be confined to their grade level. “It’s all so aligned!” She remarked with joy. “From preschool, to kindergarten and first grade, the kids can move up and around and get to know the teachers. What a beautiful transition plan for kids! I was so excited for my boys to have this.” 

Despite the recruitment efforts, the St. Paul Public Schools told parents in March that Galtier will close next year. Gant doesn’t mince words about the impact of this: “I felt misguided, misled, lied to by SPPS. You don’t tell parents to go recruit, and then give them an empty box to do it with.”

“I told them, ‘This Mama Bear s already upset. You don’t want this Mama Bear upset and pissed off. That’s a deadly combination. Education is very important to me, especially for my three Black boys.” And the boys are doing well at Galtier: My boys didn’t have very strong English skills, but one boy ran home recently and said, ‘Mom, I’m in Level C!’ They have come so far with reading.”

Gant says she is giving nearly everything she has to the school: “I’m there almost all day. I’m trying to keep the school open. My energy should be with my children, but my voice is for all the children. That’s my vehicle that I’m using, but it upsets me a little bit that I have to.”

Her frustration comes from all the good things she sees happening at Galtier, despite the fact that the school looks “low performing” on paper (Galtier’s population is racially diverse, and they serve a high number of kids from marginalized groups): 

How can we really support it and help it grow? Let’s spotlight some of the good things. The data is subjective, and no one is talking about the number of homeless kids we have. A lot of kids transition in and out because of housing issues. There are so many different factors that are not looked upon.

Galtier was just redesigned three years ago. Anyone in business or the corporate world knows it takes at least 5 years to be viable. We’ve lost a year because we’ve been trying to save the school. We can’t do fundraising for the other things we’d like. Any event this year has been on the backs of the PTO. We do yard sales, donations–all done by the PTO. It’s been exhausting.

Gant and her fellow Galtier parents are not giving up without a fight. Tonight, they have invited district administrators to the school, to answer parent questions about Galtier’s fate. “I’m not waving the white flag yet,” Gant insists. The district might assume other Galtier parents aren’t paying attention, but Gant is ready to dispute that:

History has shown that people of color won’t always speak up, don’t always feel comfortable at meetings, or feel their voices will be heard. Families don’t always like board meetings. But we have to keep advocating for parents, helping them understand they have power. I want to start out the meeting by telling parents that. 

  • Meeting today: 5:30 p.m., Galtier Elementary, 1317 Charles Ave, St. Paul, 55104 

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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“Danger of a Racist Agenda” Exposed at Network for Public Education Conference

April 19, 2016

Last weekend, seeking a boost from like-minded education friends and writers, I attended the third annual Network for Public Education (NPE) conference in Raleigh, North Carolina–ground zero for this country’s insistence on clinging to a “Leave it to Beaver” fantasy of what it means to be an American. (NPE put out a pre-conference statement about North Carolina’s recent discriminatory legislation, making it clear that the organization stands in opposition to it.)

The conference started with a bang, thanks to North Carolina’s rising orator, Reverend William Barber. He gave the opening keynote address on Saturday morning, and roused the crowd with the kind of clarity he is famous for–mostly as it pertains to calling out “white, Southern Strategy politics” and other pernicious paths to power.

Taming the wild things…

Barber’s framework for education justice sidesteps the market-based reform movement’s narrow adherence to “standards, accountability, and choice,” and instead insists on staring racism, inequality and historic educational injustice right in the eyes. (This reminds me of Bill Moyers’ great interview with Maurice Sendak about his book, Where the Wild Things Are, and its main character, Max, who “tamed the wild things by staring into their yellow eyes without blinking once.”)

Barber told the crowd of around 400 conference goers about his first-hand experience with racist, segregated schools in North Carolina, and he reflected on the “current political climate in far too many places, where people are downright hostile to public education.” Yes, Barber acknowledged, public education is dysfunctional and troubled in some places, but he insisted there is more to today’s anti-public education climate than ground-level failures.

If we are going to deal with public education, Barber said, we have to be “willing to be quite frank about how racism always gets in the way of us meeting the noble goals of education.” Access to a public education is guaranteed by North Carolina’s constitution, Barber told the crowd, but this guarantee has been historically undermined by racist, fear-based “extremist attacks on public education.”

Sometimes, Barber said, he gets confused when describing past actions against tax increases from people who were directly opposed to supporting public education for all, because it reminds him so much of contemporary protests against paying taxes to support “failing” public schools.”The first cries to cut taxes in this country came in direct relationship to opening up public education to all people, regardless of their race,” Barber expounded, his voice rising with passion and emphasis. “We have to learn this history, and understand this history,” he insisted, calling it the “challenge of our democracy.” 

Reverend Barber

We have to learn our “ugly history,” Barber told the crowd, if we are going to go forward. 

Barber’s call to conscience provided the perfect backdrop to the NPE conference, where sessions about such things as the demise of the African-American teacher, the rise of student-led protests, and the need to get involved in local elections offered both hope and heartache. I learned the most from listening to parents like Ashana Bigard and Karran Harper Royal, from New Orleans, describe the profound impact the top down reform movement is having on their city.

I cannot shake, for example, Bigard’s stories of New Orleans parents with multiple kids, who all have to attend different schools–thanks to a “unified” enrollment system that, supposedly, throws kids’ names into a computer algorithm, and then spits out a match for each kid. This is sold as a better, more equitable system for assigning schools (there are virtually no neighborhood schools left in New Orleans; only a scattershot landscape of charters), but Bigard questioned why all of the city’s white, middle class kids seem to be concentrated in a handful of “good” schools.

Both Bigard and Harper Royal also talked about this reality: there are thousands of New Orleans kids are on the streets, without a job or a diploma to give them hope. Perhaps we should just think of them as collateral damage in our war on “failing” public schools.

There were signs of success at the NPE conference, too. A panel on community schools included perspectives from Austin, Texas middle school principal, Raul Sanchez, and John Jackson of the Boston-based Schott Foundation. Sanchez has embraced a wrap-around model for his school, which serves a high number of homeless and immigrant kids. More than this, Sanchez described and seems to embody the kind of servant leadership that can bring a community together. Jackson, too, has stayed true to a model of school reform that seeks to embrace and support students and teachers–and not pit them against one another in a battle for resources and test scores.

On the flip side, I also spent time listening to a “spirited conversation” between Jennifer Berkshire (Edushyster) and Peter Cunningham, a former federal department of education employee now paid to run billionaire reformer Eli Broad’s $12 million “Education Post” website. I admire Berkshire for being willing to dance with the devil, so to speak, and both she and NPE were right to leave the door open to people with differing points of view.

But Cunningham disappointed. I imagine he was uncomfortable at NPE, especially when positioned in a room full of deeply invested teachers, parents, and activists; this perhaps explains some of the oddly one-dimensional angles he clung to. Example: a rumpled-looking father from Seattle poured his heart out to Cunningham during a question and answer session, asking for Cunningham’s thoughts on Bill Gates’ (and others’) repeated, money-dripping attempts to bring charters to Washington state. Eh, that’s just democracy, Cunningham shrugged. People with more money can make things go their way.

I’d say this response was just Cunningham playing coy before an unfriendly audience. But then there is his website, Education Post. There, he clearly has the platform and the paycheck to bring about a “better conversation” about education, as Education Post promises. Instead, the website seems to have done little but spawn a hate brigade of social media activists, whose talent for mean-tweeting and harassing behavior is as copious as it is offensive. I won’t name names, but I will suggest that Cunningham use some of Education Post’s munificent resources on an in-house bullying workshop.

In the end, no false front of school choice or obsession with every kid’s test score will allow us to avoid the historic and current exploitation of our most marginalized populations. And nothing–no silver bullet or forward-thinking strategy–will, alone, be able to overcome the deep disinvestment in public education, social services, and working people that has been going on for decades now, filling our prisons, privatizing our schools and parks, and throwing more and more children into poverty and crisis. Or, in the words of Chicago teacher Monique Redeaux-Smith:

“This idea of accountability with no resources is a setup.”

As Reverend Barber said, too, “You cannot say you love children and then fight investment in their lives, and investment in their teachers, and investment in their schools. That is hypocrisy.”

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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Dysfunction Junction: Innovation in the Minneapolis Schools

April 13, 2016

Last night, two new Minneapolis schools—Southwest High School and the downtown FAIR School–became district-sponsored Community Partnership Schools (CPS), after winning approval from the school board. At last! Becoming a CPS site means these two schools can operate as “innovative, site-based educational models that utilize increased autonomy, accountability and partnerships to meet the unique needs of their school communities and accelerate student achievement.” according to MPS’s website.

But…both Southwest and FAIR already are, or claim to be, built around “innovative, site-based educational models.” Southwest has been an IB school since I was a student there, in the dark ages of the 20th century, and FAIR’s website describes the school this way: 

The FAIR School is the result of imaginative educational conception, inventive curriculum planning, and innovative architectural design.

So why would these two already innovative schools want–or need–to also become CPS sites? Besides the half-promise that Community Partnership Schools will be allowed “charter-like freedom” in hiring and firing decisions (an idea that seemed to be dispelled at last night’s school board meeting), what is the benefit?

Let’s admit it: the Minneapolis Public Schools is full of mixed messages. On the one hand, the district pays for a fancy Office of New Schools, where lucky teachers and parents got to take a grant-funded trip to Los Angeles (in March, no less!) to see what innovative, creative schools look like up close (maybe they had to go to L.A. because the Office of New Schools has tried and failed to adequately implement “innovative” schools here already). If they liked what they saw–and who wouldn’t, when you’re going to LA on someone else’s dime–they could come back and “replicate” the innovation in their own Minneapolis school, as long as the school agreed to become a Community Partnership School.

But, on the other hand, many Minneapolis schools are already being given beautiful levels of autonomy, without having to become a CPS site, or taking a trip to LA. Check this video out, from the newly reopened, redesigned Webster Elementary School, in northeast Minneapolis:

From the video, it sounds like principal Ginger Davis Kranz simply had a great idea: “let’s build community at our school through family-style dining,” and was allowed to…try it, without having to become a CPS site. Genius. (And probably part of a comprehensive effort to attract and retain organized downtown Minneapolis families, who tend to be whiter and wealthier than most.)

So, why can’t every school in Minneapolis do this? Why can’t principals, teachers and staff come up with ideas on their own, and try them out? Why are some schools in Minneapolis granted “autonomy”–as they should be–while others struggle under mangled mandates that depress spirits (and keep test scores and morale low, undoubtedly)?

Why does Minneapolis promote “focused instruction” out of one side of the Davis Center, while simultaneously fawning over the idea that empowered, innovative schools are the key to success? Focused instruction, if you will recall, is MPS’s awkwardly implemented, standardized approach to “transforming educational outcomes” by putting test scores and standards first, and then creating instructional strategies that “align” with those tests and standards.

MPS FI

Click to enlarge

Even with focused instruction, MPS understands that not all of its schools are the same. Here is a picture from the district’s internal website, advising school staff to find which type of school they work in, and then go from there:

Presumably, then, innovation, school choice and autonomy already exist in the district. If magnet schools–which Minneapolis has had since the 1970’s–are not already the “unit of change,” then why aren’t they? If they have not already been granted the “autonomy” to do their own thing, according to the professional judgment of school staff and the input of families, then why would becoming a CPS site change this? What makes CPS a guaranteed approach, while magnet status does not? 

And Webster Elementary is neither a magnet school nor a CPS site. It just sounds like a forward-thinking, well designed rebuilt public school that has been encouraged to lead with developmentally appropriate, professionally conceived strategies. 

Why can’t all Minneapolis schools be allowed to operate like this? Why is focused instruction a “non-negotiable” for some sites, as former superintendent Bernadeia Johnson said in 2013, while other schools are encouraged to become dream-driven, flexibly arranged sites?

It’s hard to see how CPS sites will eradicate decades of uneven leadership, mishandled initiatives and unequal levels of trust, in terms of who is allowed to act innovatively, and who is not, and at what cost. But I can’t blame FAIR and Southwest for trying.

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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Minneapolis School Board Race Takes Shape

April 11, 2016

Anyone who doubts the power or potential of an elected school board should have been at the Minneapolis Convention Center on Sunday, April 10. There, amid an engaged and sometimes raucous crowd, the Minneapolis Democratic Farmer Labor party (DFL) held its city convention, where delegates endorsed four new school board candidates:

  • Kim Ellison, who is moving out of her District 2 seat and running for a citywide seat
  • Kerry Jo Felder, who is now vying for Ellison’s soon-to-be vacated District 2 seat in north Minneapolis
  • Bob Walser in District 4, encompassing downtown and parts of south and southwest Minneapolis
  • Ira Jourdain in District 6, in southwest Minneapolis

All four of these candidates recently earned the endorsement of the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers (MFT), according to an announcement on MFT’s website. (Candidates Josh Reimnitz and Tracine Asberry declined to participate in the MFT endorsement process.)

Ellison had no contenders for the DFL citywide endorsement, making her selection the shortest one of the afternoon. In District 2, Felder, an education organizer for the Minneapolis Regional Labor Federation, gave an impassioned speech to city delegates. She spoke of her strong preference for “full service community schools” as a grassroots, bottom-up strategy for the city’s schools, and was flanked on stage by a troop of supporters in bright yellow campaign t-shirts. 

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Kim Caprini

Her rival, Kimberly Caprini, had a smaller crew of supporters–and came away with less votes–but also gave a compelling speech about why she should represent District 2 on the school board, telling delegates that, “the northside is always told no, but I don’t take no for an answer.” Caprini also detailed the advocacy work she does on behalf of a number of District 2 schools, including Olson Middle School and Patrick Henry High School.

In District 4, incumbent candidate Josh Reimnitz conceded the endorsement to newcomer Bob Walser before vote totals were announced. Reimnitz, a Teach for America alum, was first elected to the school board in 2012. Back then, as a new Minneapolis resident, Reimnitz coasted to victory with a little help from his friends in the education reform world, who added fuel, funds and fire to Reminitz’s campaign.

This time around–just four years later–those affiliations seemed like a liability. In his five minute speech to delegates, Reimnitz said he wanted to be upfront about his connections to Teach for America and education reform, drawing a few boos and hisses from the crowd. He also acknowledged that his 2012 campaign was funded by outside sources, because, he said, he was “new to Minneapolis.” In the end, his honesty was not enough to carry him past Walser, a long-time Kenwood resident who was surrounded by ecstatic neighborhood supporters. 

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Ira Jourdain

Incumbent Tracine Asberry also stumbled on Sunday, losing the DFL endorsement to 2014 citywide candidate, Ira Jourdain. In a coin toss, Jourdain took to the stage before Asberry, and introduced himself in Ojibwe (he is a member of the Red Lake Band of Ojibwe). He then gave an electric speech, declaring his belief in collective bargaining, the opt out movement and DFL values. As he walked off stage, he was given a standing ovation by a number of District 6 enthusiasts.

This was a tough act for Asberry to follow, despite the line of supporters that followed her onto the stage. She said she had thought one of her supporters, Minneapolis teacher Tom Rademacher, would be allowed to speak on her behalf. Instead, because of Convention rules, she had to settle for repeating a quote from Rademacher about her work. Asberry, first elected in 2012, also reminded delegates about her time on the school board, saying she had abstained from voting on the district’s strategic plan, and had stayed in the room during last fall’s Reading Horizons protests, when most other board members walked out.

The last two Minneapolis school board elections–in 2012 and 2014–were contentious, and, to many observers, painful. In 2014, out of state reform interests made a serious play for the two citywide seats, dumping close to $250,000 in “dark” money into the race. That amount of money–which adds up to almost a dollar for every Minneapolis resident–largely went to negative campaigning, and may have acted as a shot heard ’round the city: the profit and power hungry reform movement was barging through our collective front door.

Although the April 10 DFL Convention ended on a jubilant note for most, will it be enough to keep the persistent and incredibly deep-pocketed reformers at bay? Only the months leading up to the November election will tell.

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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Need Relevance? Try Recess

April 10, 2016

Locally operated, nationally organized education reform “harbormaster” MN Comeback is holding its first-ever “relevance working group” on April 11, according to a recent report in MinnPost (caution: both MinnPost and MN Comeback are funded by the Minneapolis and Bush Foundations). 

MN Comeback is a well oiled arm of the national reform outfit, Education Cities; Education Cities, in turn, receives its marching orders and paychecks from a cohort of billionaire philanthropists via the Gates, Walton, Broad and Dell foundations. (The recent MinnPost article, however, makes no mention of this, and instead paints MN Comeback as nothing more than an organic, grassroots gathering of respected local folks, such as R.T. Rybak.)

MN Comeback is built around a suggestive tagline: “30,000 rigorous, relevant seats by 2025.” Problem is, the people behind MN Comeback have yet to figure out what a “relevant” seat looks like. They’ve got the “rigorous” part down, of course, because rigor=test scores and “college and career ready” coursework. (Follow MN Comeback’s money trail to see this in action: the group just gave $250,000 to the sketchy, interim test-generating “leadership” group called Achievement Now.)

But the relevance? That’s dicier, because “relevance” is harder to wrangle onto a spreadsheet and bar graph. MN Comeback executive director, Al Fan, describes the situation this way, in the MinnPost piece:

“We know it’s a lot of things to different people, but it should include something around cultural relevance, social-emotional skill building, 21st century skills; it may include something around behavior, teacher retention, community support,” he said. “But we don’t have any of those measures yet, so we need to develop them. Our work is around ‘How do we define it in a way that we can measure it and use it to really fine tune how we define great schools?’ 

Notice how “relevance” is never about having stable housing, safe neighborhoods or access to comprehensive social services? But I digress. Fan and his MN Comeback crew could probably learn a lot about relevance by checking out a new recess petition, put out by Minneapolis parents. The petition is less than 48 hours old, and already has close to 850 signatures.

The petition makes this demand, and it incorporates the need for an actual lunch time for kids:

We are asking the Board of Education of the Minneapolis Public Schools System to enact a policy that ensures every child in K-8 receives a daily minimum of 30 minutes of unstructured, safe, supervised recess time, prior to a 30 minute lunch period.  Recess is not a substitute for time spent in Physical Education classes, nor may this time be taken away from students as punishment for behavioral issues.  

The comments alone are priceless, and provide a goldmine of info about what “relevance” means to public school parents, staff and kids. Here’s a sampling:

I would like all children to have a minimum of 1 hour & hopefully this is a step in the right direction!!

In Finland, highly acclaimed for their education system, kids get 15 minutes of exercise/outdoor time per hour! My son has ASD and the lack of outdoor time severely impacts his ability to focus and learn. The trade offs are not worth it.

I have a toddler who I will be sending to MPS in a few years and I’d like to know he’ll have more than 13 minutes to play outside!

As a 5th grade teacher, I know that it is absolutely in the best interest of students to give them time to run, play, and talk with their peers. 

I teach kindergarten in Minneapolis. My kids need more time to run and play for their physical and mental health.

Kids learn better when they are able to be active!!! You want better test scores? Give them adequate time for recess! Look at Farmington’s research on physical activity and improved test scores.

I know if my kids don’t run around for at least 30 minutes a day I can’t even handle them as their mother. How are teachers supposed to do their job if they’re trying to control a class filled with pent-up energy? We’re failing our teachers and our kids by limiting their recess to 15 minutes.

There is a heap of research showing how much young minds need unstructured time and movement to help facilitate learning. Also, we all need to move – especially younger kids.

If a recess (and lunch) petition gathers 1,000 signatures, how should we measure its relevance?

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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MN Comeback Leapfrogs Democracy in Minneapolis

April 7. 2016

If there is any question about how deeply embedded the market-based reform group, MN Comeback, is within the Minneapolis Public Schools, a recent email from the district’s Human Capital director, Maggie Sullivan, should make the situation unmistakably clear.

Sullivan, who sits on a MN Comeback committee along with other MPS human resources employees, wrote the following message (condensed here) to district staff on April 6:

Good Morning Everyone!

I want to share some positive news.  We were just awarded $575k from Minnesota Comeback to fund the Minneapolis Residency Program.  This means that the program is now fully funded for next year so we will be able to continue with a second cohort of residents!  The Comeback is a movement of schools, funders and educational organizations developing a citywide plan to coordinate systems-level grants that improve K-12 education.

Way to go team!

This startling tidbit–that a private group with a distinct mission to disrupt, alter, and take students from the Minneapolis Public Schools–will now be fully funding the district’s own training program for future teachers of color should stop the presses. But it hasn’t.

Instead, Star Tribune education reporter Alejandra Matos spun out a MN Comeback article yesterday, in which the group’s efforts sound like something Mother Teresa might approve of.

Matos describes MN Comeback as simply a “group of foundations and business leaders,” intent on snuffing out the “achievement gap.” There is no mention of MN Comeback’s allegiance with the national reform group, Education Cities, and no deeper analysis of what their motives might be, beyond MN Comeback director Al Fan’s stated intentions:

“We envision a day when every child in Minneapolis regardless of their race, income or ZIP code has access to world-class schools,” said Al Fan, Minnesota Comeback’s executive director, in a statement. 

Fan’s description of MN Comeback strongly echoes Teach for America’s legendaryOne Dayslogan, which in turn strongly echoes the mission of the Walton Family Foundation, whose Walmart-fueled largesse funds both TFA and MN Comeback:

The foundation has invested more than $1 billion to date to improve all types of schools — traditional district, public charter and private — and to support innovative organizations that share a common goal: to give all families the ability to choose the best school for their child, regardless of their ZIP code. 

This all makes sense. Teach for America is deeply entwined in MN Comeback, as former TFA alum (including MinnCAN director Daniel Sellers and his wife, Stacy Strauss) and current TFA staff sit on the group’s numerous committees, helping its funders decide how to spend their money. Given Teach for America’s growing PR problems, that should give pause to anyone following this, or writing about it, or choosing to accept money from MN Comeback.

But MN Comeback is doing something great by funding Minneapolis’s burgeoning “Grow Your Own” program, right? Everyone agrees–rightfully so–that diversifying Minnesota’s teaching corps must be a priority. And, as Maggie Sullivan notes in Matos’s Star Tribune article, this initiative needs money:

“Without this funding we would not be able to run the program next year.”

The article makes no mention of the fact that, simultaneously, there is a bill moving through the Minnesota legislature for a statewide, publicly funded “Grow Your Own” program. It has broad support and is expected to pass and bring funding with it, as part of Governor Mark Dayton’s outlined education and racial equity priorities.

Minneapolis’s Grow Your Own program would surely benefit from this bill, without the infusion of money from MN Comeback. But this way, MN Comeback gets to leapfrog the democratic process, where elected representatives write bills and haggle over where taxpayer dollars should go. There is no oversight here. No elected rep to turn to. No publicly held meetings, recorded in excruciating detail. (One Minneapolis school board member, Rebecca Gagnon, has publicly questioned Minneapolis’s relationship with MN Comeback, to no avail thus far.)

There are questions to ask about who will ultimately own this program, if MN Comeback is paying for it. This group has said, numerous times, that their mission is to remake the Minneapolis schools, mostly through market-based reforms (competition, choice, the chase for higher test scores). And it wants to “expand the charter sector” in Minneapolis, bearing no special allegiance to the Minneapolis schools (so these trained teachers will be working where?).

Matos’s article states that MN Comeback will also help lobby for “nonconventional teacher prep programs,” a core mission shared by Teach for America and its affiliates, including Educators for Excellence and MinnCAN. This is a policy step favored by the market-based reform movement, often with the goal of making teachers more “outcome” oriented, and less steeped in meaningless educational “theory.” (“Nonconventional,” or alternative, licensure programs already receive a tremendous amount of lobbying support in MN.)

Paying for more Minneapolis staffers to become licensed teachers could be a red herring, giving MN Comeback the cover it needs to work behind the scenes, shaping Minneapolis into more of a portfolio, choice-saturated district (with a real estate kickback to boot, for investors). This is a function of our current plutocracy. Consider these excerpts, from a 2011 Alternet article, “Meet the Plutocrats Behind Attacks on Public Education”:

…billionaires, the Nation’s magazines Dana Goldstein suggests, may have a deeper reason for pushing their education vision, for insisting that putting “better” teachers into America’s classrooms can “completely overcome poverty.”

“If the United States could somehow guarantee poor people a fair shot at the American dream through shifting education policies alone, Goldstein observes, “then perhaps we wouldn’t have to feel so damn bad about inequality–about low tax rates and loopholes that benefit the super rich and prevent us from expanding access to child care and food stamps.”

MN Comeback may be paying for an important program, but what will they expect in return?

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