On Buckthorn, Neoliberalism and Other Invasive Things

May 1, 2017

Last week, as I was driving my South High School student to an event, she began naming all of the trees lining the street. There’s a River Birch, she called out, and my favorite, she said excitedly–the Scotch Pine. See how they bend, close together? 

River Birch in bloom

Another time, we went for a walk near Lake Harriet. It wasn’t long before she was naming the birds around us, based on their look and sound. She hasn’t learned any of this from me, although I have lived most of my life in Minnesota, surrounded by our trees, lakes and birds. Instead, she has a Minnesota Ecology class this semester, at South. It is taught by a teacher I’ve never met, but someone my daughter has taken to with eager enthusiasm. 

Recently, the class went on a field trip to a wildlife refuge along the Mississippi River. They spent the day clearing buckthorn and learning about other invasive plant species. It was grubby, thrilling work–rewarded with a free lunch buffet. My kid was over the moon with joy. It was the kind of dirty work she, and a lot of kids, I imagine, long for. It feels real, and it beats sitting in a windowless classroom on a spring day (or any day, to be honest).

Her experience at South has been far from perfect. We’ve navigated communication breakdowns with teachers, and tearful moments of panic over due dates, friendships and the prison-like look and feel of South. But we’ve reached the heights, too. She’s on the honor roll. She just got inducted into the National Honor Society with seventy-four of her tenth grade peers; the Society’s new president is a Somali-American student who promises to bring a new style of leadership to the service-oriented group.

She has friends from all over the city. She’s learning another language. She interacts with people from many walks of life. On a Saturday afternoon, she went to a Battle of the Bands, sponsored by South and held on the school’s bleak track field. This week, I’m helping her pick out frames for some of her own artwork, which made it into Intermedia Arts’ spring show. (Her Advanced Art teacher encouraged students to submit their work for review.)

Why am I writing all of this? Isn’t the Minneapolis Public Schools burning to the ground? The district has no money and stagnant test scores. The public is angry; district principals are even more upset. 

But on the ground, the district succeeds in many ways. I have spent a fair amount of time this year at north Minneapolis’s Lucy Laney Community School, observing, writing and getting to know the kids and their teachers (and food service workers, engineers, behavior support people and administrators). Mostly, I have been embraced by the kids, especially a handful of third graders who greet me with hugs and a warm “Ms. Lahm!” whenever I show up. 

Last Friday, I sat with a few of them as they relaxed and drew pictures. One boy wrote a love note to a beloved support staff member, Ms. Kim. Another girl drew a geometric pattern in black, telling me that her dad thinks she’s good at drawing. She gave me the picture to take home. 

A week or two ago, when I pulled up at Laney, there was a police car in the parking lot, its doors flung open. I had no idea what was going on, but it seemed to involve a minivan that was stopped at an angle just outside of the school’s front windows. Once I got inside, I learned the school was on alert. “There’s a Code Yellow going on,” one of my young friends told me, before asking, with a tap on my shoulder, if I was okay.

It turns out that someone had dropped their kid off at school in a stolen car. The police confronted the parents in the parking lot, guns drawn, in full view of a kindergarten classroom. The kids never learned the details of this, I’m sure, thanks to the watchful oversight of Laney staff. No one seemed particularly upset, either.  

It was just another day. Another day in a district perpetually on the verge of being undone by neoliberal interventions, declining public investment and school choice escape hatches. Our schools are more racially and economically segregated than ever, whether they are district schools or quasi-private charters. (Now, place your bets as to who that benefits, to steal a line from Hamilton.)

On April 18, the Minneapolis school board responded to public protest by reinstating the jobs or employment status of seven district staffers who feel they were dismissed unfairly–for a variety of reasons that center on race and toxic working conditions. I shared the stories of some of these employees in previous blog posts, and wrote about the meeting’s outcome, too.

I don’t regret that. But I have tried to listen further, to the stories of district principals–who held their own come-to-Jesus meeting with board members last week–as well as to the staff who’ve been victimized by a system that often seems to be its own worst enemy. There are reams of anecdotal evidence to support the conclusion that MPS has an HR problem. Not everywhere, but in enough sites that some closer scrutiny of management should be a high priority. Is it?

There are some great principals in MPS; my own kids have attended schools led by competent, friendly, fair-minded administrators. It’s also important to acknowledge that the job description for principals has changed a lot in recent years, to encompass scores of box-checking and classroom micromanaging. (Dig into the RESET Education plan, for some background info.) Good relationships are not built through spreadsheets and scripted teacher observation forms.

This is failure by design, of course. MPS once served over 50,000 students–with one superintendent and maybe two or three associate superintendents helping out. Today, we have seven or eight associate superintendents for 36,000 students. Which sites, under which associate superintendents, continue to crop up as problematic? Does anyone have data on that?

Which aspects of the district’s strategic plan, written pro bono by McKinsey & Co. consultants in 2007, continue to undermine strong principals, teachers, support staff and students? (McKinsey & Co. is a global capitalism consulting firm, with close ties to business, civic and philanthropic leaders in the Twin Cities via the Itasca Project.

Accepting McKinsey & Company’s free strategic plan was a trap. It promised big things, including a never-reached 80 percent, district-wide proficiency rate on standardized tests by 2012. And it continues to dominate MPS’s plans and budgetary priorities, such as the recent attempt to balance the district’s budget on the backs of building engineers.  

Meanwhile, Minnesota legislators sit on a billion dollar budget surplusIf we want real change, maybe we have to start asking the right questions.

Neoliberalism is embraced by parties across the political spectrum, from right to left, in that the interests of wealthy investors and large corporations define social and economic policy. The free market, private enterprise, consumer choice, entrepreneurial initiative, deleterious effects of government regulation, and so on, are the tenets of neoliberalism.

Neoliberalism and Education Reform, 2007

Like my work? Consider supporting it through a much appreciated donation. And thanks to those of you who already have. Couldn’t make it without you!

Donate

2 thoughts on “On Buckthorn, Neoliberalism and Other Invasive Things

  1. Sarah Tittle

    I loved your commentary about your daughter’s experience with her ecology class at South. My daughters both attended South. They are now at Grinnell College and Vassar College–2 of the top 5 schools in the country in terms of socioeconomic diversity. There’s a reason they chose these schools, and its roots are in their experiences as students in a dynamic, angry, embattled, energetic, exciting, flailing, hero-filled public high school. They have seen race wars up close, seen the tolls that police brutality, poverty, and prejudice take on their fellow students. It’s one thing to be privileged students in a privileged setting that invites those without privilege into their midst. It’s another to be a student of privilege in that same setting who’s actually witnessed non-privilege up close. You can’t buy your way into that kind of experience. I’m proud of my girls for emerging from South filled with empathy and understanding, and also fueled by anger, and also feeling that there may be a solution. Private high schools, no matter how “diverse,” cannot teach these experiences. I was often not happy with how things went down at South, but if we were to do it all over again, we would choose public, urban, messy, vibrant school.

    Reply
  2. Heather F

    My 2 sons are having a positive and rewarding experience at South High School. Thanks for sharing successes as well as challenges

    Reply

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *