Tag Archives: Kerry Jo Felder

Minneapolis Protester to School Board Members: “You are Trash”

August 9, 2017

Minneapolis Public Schools superintendent, Ed Graff, reportedly had to be escorted to his car by in-house security officers late on August 8, at the tail end of a long and loudly contentious school board meeting.

The regularly scheduled meeting included the board’s vote on a new contract between the district and the Minneapolis police, worth over $1 million. The three-year contract, which the board approved 8-1, will pay for fourteen school resource officers, or SROs, to work in Minneapolis, mainly at the high school level. North Minneapolis board member, Kerry Jo Felder, voted against the contract, citing concerns over how district resources are being distributed to support the most marginalized students. 

Image result for ed graff

Ed Graff

Felder also pushed to have the board vote on the contract right after the public comment period ended. This prompted lengthy discussion among board members, who seemed taxed not only by the anti-SRO crowd evident in the room, but also by attempts to hammer out what, exactly, they would be agreeing to by entering into a new contract with the Minneapolis police. Board members Nelson Inz and Ira Jourdain, for example, sought clarity around the depth of training the officers (and any potential substitutes) would receive, as well as who would be in charge of the SROs (the schools or the police department?). 

Eventually, after two recesses, the board voted for a modified contract, calling for fourteen SROs, rather than the current sixteen. Other reforms, such as “soft” uniforms and a commitment to monthly progress reports were discussed and agreed to. Most significantly, the board–mostly at the insistence of Felder, Inz and student board member, Gabriel Spinks–pushed Superintendent Graff to further explore alternatives to SROs.

“Can we have a team that researches alternatives?” Spinks asked, before offering up what seemed like conflicted feelings on SROs. On the one hand, Spinks acknowledged, many students report feeling intimidated by the presence of SROs, who have historically worn a full police officer’s uniform, gun included. On the other hand, he said, eliminating these officers from the Minneapolis schools might increase tension “between minorities and the police.”

At the opposite end of the spectrum, board member Don Samuels elicited groans from the audience when he spoke of police officers as knowing “testosterone” and “teenage boys.” He also spoke emotionally about his time as a city council member, when he says members of the local Hmong community approached him about the bullying they were experiencing in Minneapolis parks and schools. This experience, combined with knowledge that Minneapolis principals apparently overwhelmingly support SROs, were factors in Samuels’ stated support for the continued use of such “resource” officers. 

In this way, the meeting’s conversation among board members, the public and district administrators seemed fruitful. What are our values, many seemed to ask, and how can we best use our limited resources? What does it mean to have SROs in our schools, in light of the long-acknowledged school to prison pipeline? What would happen if the board voted the contract down, essentially ending the district’s use of SROs? Is there a replacement plan in place, primarily for the district’s high schools? Police would still be in our schools, someone pointed out, because school leaders would be pressed to call 911 in a crisis. 

This back and forth was repeatedly drowned out, however, by a group of people in the audience who are vehemently opposed to SROs. The protesters described themselves as being affiliated with both the Black Liberation Project and a new group called “Stand Up.” Some faces were familiar–such as Tiffini Flynn Forslund, a frequent advocate for education reform who is currently running for a seat on the Minneapolis city council. The protests were matched with a petition, signed by 74 northside residents, who represent five Minneapolis schools and are in favor of SROs. 

As the meeting progressed, some members of the protest group grew increasingly confrontational, lobbing threats at board members that they would soon be “voted out,” and accusing them of not caring about Black students. Finally, after the SRO vote was taken, one woman strode to the front of the dias where board members sit. Most of the board had left already, as the meeting was being moved due to continued interruptions, so only citywide representatives Kim Ellison and Rebecca Gagnon remained.

“You are trash. I hope you know that,” the woman told Ellison and Gagnon. 

With that, the meeting’s live video stream was cut off, and the meeting reconvened on the fifth floor of the Davis center. Few, if any, media representatives followed the meeting upstairs, as I understand it (I was watching the video stream at home), and so no one realized that the disruptions continued–to the point where Superintendent Graff had to be escorted to his car. 

Can Graff be held accountable for the sins of the past, when restorative justice initiatives were promised by district leadership but never really “implemented with fidelity”? (Look to former Superintendent Bernadeia Johnson’s legacy for evidence of this.) Last night, Graff seemed eager to move headlong into embracing SROs (after a lengthy community engagement process, which reportedly resulted in broad support for their continued presence) while also promising to bring “integrity” and “intentionality” to their presence in the schools. Graff is a known proponent of “social-emotional learning,” and spoke about wanting to assess the “climate and culture” of each district school.

This ties into another key issue that members of the public raised at the meeting: the fate of Southwest High School administrator, Brian Nutter. Nutter has been reassigned to Davis Center headquarters as part of an administrative shake up at Southwest, reportedly due to an Office of Civil Rights complaint that was filed by a previous administrator. That complaint is said to focus on allegations of racial bias in the school’s “climate and culture,” as Graff might say.

At last night’s meeting, Nutter’s wife, Jada, spoke up on his behalf, explaining that he was away fulfilling his duties as a member of the Minnesota Army National Guard. Nutter said that she and her husband met while both were students at Minneapolis’s Roosevelt High School, and that they were “humbled and grateful” for the support they’ve received from the public, since Brian’s removal from Southwest was announced. This turn of events was “surprising” for Brian, his wife told the board, and came with “no community engagement,” leaving the school with “three unfulfilled administrative posts.”

If this is true–that no one from the Southwest community was involved in the decision to remove Nutter–than it would seem to fly in the face of an assertion Graff made at the August 8 board meeting. When the board’s discussion of SROs included talks of whether or not they should be in the schools at all, Graff had this to say (bold type added for emphasis):

I’m not focused on removals. I’m focused on listening to concerns. My goal is not to reduce SROs. My goal is to listen to concerns, around students not feeling safe, connected. I’d like to spend our energy in those areas. That’s the issue for me. Removing someone from the environment doesn’t address the climate. 

Perhaps the situation at Southwest necessitated Nutter’s removal without any community engagement or a “listening of concerns.” If so, no one affiliated with Southwest High School seems to know what this is (including Nutter and his wife, apparently). If there is no clear explanation for why Nutter needed to go, leaving Southwest in a precarious position just weeks before the school year starts, then this is the kind of red flag Graff will most likely need to avoid on his way to building trust and confidence with district staff and families.

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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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Bernie Sanders & AFL-CIO to focus on Racial and Economic Justice in Minneapolis, Unions

February 9, 2016

It’s 5 degrees outside, but you can put away that parka: things are hot in Minneapolis right now.

Bernie Sanders is coming to a north Minneapolis forum on Friday, February 12. The exact details have yet to be revealed, but the significance of this event is, as Sanders might say, “yooge.”

Sanders will appear at north Minneapolis’s Capri Theater, at the invitation of Neighborhoods Organizing for Change (NOC), a northside non-profit dedicated to fighting for racial and economic justice in the Twin Cities. A February 8 NOC press release says the forum will “focus on the Black experience in America, and specifically in Minnesota” and the racial disparities that exist here and elsewhere. Also up for discussion is what the federal government can do to “invest in radical solutions being developed in Black communities and other communities of color.” The statement says Hillary Clinton declined NOC’s invitation to attend.

According to NOC, a presidential candidate has never held a forum in north Minneapolis, a historic area home to some of Minneapolis’s proudest, yet most marginalized neighborhoods (learn more about the area by watching this superb, story-based video). By agreeing to come here, Sanders will have to put his progressive stump speech to the test.

Are the marginalized and people of color really at the center of Sanders’ proposed reforms? If you follow the recent writings of both Ta-Nehisi Coates and Michelle Alexander, you know that, this year, there will be no free passes given to candidates who say they want what’s “best” for African-Americans, specifically, or people of color overall.

That seems refreshing, as does another major event scheduled in Minneapolis this week. On Thursday and Friday, Tefere Gebre, Vice President of the AFL-CIO, will be in town for a forum on the need to bring racial and economic justice to the nation’s unions. POCUM Forum

Kerry Jo Felder is the education organizer for the Minneapolis Regional Labor Federation (MRLF), which acts as an umbrella organization for the AFL-CIO, the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers, and other local unions. Felder says Gebre is coming to Minneapolis as part of the AFL-CIO’s eight-city Labor Commission on Racial and Economic Justice tour.

This tour was set in motion at the 2014 unrest in Ferguson, Missouri and is intended to provide a platform for confronting the institutionalized racism in labor unions, while also making the case that unions can provide solutions to today’s entrenched and expanding racial and economic inequities.

Felder, who started a People of Color Union Member (POCUM) caucus within the MRLF, says the union must step up and do a better job of acknowledging how racism is holding unions back. “I hear the stories all the time, from my POCUMs. People are sick and tired of being passed over for jobs and promotions.”

Tackling racism head-on is essential to the overall survival of unions, according to Felder, who lives in north Minneapolis and sees disparities–in housing, jobs, income and education–around her every day. “We have to have people who are in the unions go back to the community, and explain why unions matter. Relationships matter. If people are getting passed over for positions, they’re not going to have a good taste in their mouths, or want to help support unions.”

The AFL-CIO held similar racial and economic justice tours in 1995 and 2005, says Felder, but, clearly, not enough has changed.“We’re trying to make this happen,” she insisted. “We hope we can focus on what’s bad about how our unions are operating, come up with some solutions, and make it good.”

AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka gets this, says Felder. “He sees that, if the unions are going to survive, they are going to have to include people of color more.”

Perhaps, if Bernie Sanders, or Hillary Clinton, or any presidential candidate, is going to survive, they will also need to, authentically, address the issues–and solutions–raised by people of color.

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