Tag Archives: Minneapolis Public Schools

Opt Out Numbers in Minnesota High Schools Skyrocket

March 11, 2017

As testing season begins in full force across Minnesota, publicly available data from the state Department of Education indicates a striking trend: the number of high school juniors refusing to sit for the state and federally mandated MCA tests is growing–rapidly.

Sidebar: In order to qualify for federal Title funding, Minnesota is required to give annual, standardized tests (MCAs) to public school students in grades 3-8 and 10, for reading; grades 3-8 and 11 in math, and science in grades 5, 8 and once in high school (English Language Learners are given many additional ACCESS tests each year, K-12). Although the state is required to give the tests, parents and students in Minnesota have the right to refuse to participate in them.

The Monticello, MN schools recently canceled science in favor of MCA test prep

In 2016, 2,227 high school juniors opted out of the MCA tests statewide. That’s just a drop in the bucket, compared to the 55,975 students who did take it. But it is more than three times the number of eleventh grade students–694–who opted out of the MCAs in 2015. 

This is a startling jump, taking place in schools and cities as diverse as suburban St. Louis Park, rural Pine City and Minneapolis. (The examples below pertain only to the Math MCA tests for high school juniors.)

In 2016, ten Pine City juniors refused the MCA tests; that’s a small but significant bump up from the three students who refused the tests in 2015. At St. Louis Park High School in 2016, 66 juniors opted out. But in 2015, just one student refused the MCAs.

An eye-popping 209 juniors at Minneapolis’s Henry High School opted out of the math MCAs in 2016. That’s a huge leap from 2015, when just eleven students refused the tests. Only seven percent of Henry’s 1,100 students identify as white and eighty percent live in poverty, according to federal standards. This might help poke holes in the story that onlysuburban momsand white, wealthier kids are pushing the opt out movement. And, across town at Roosevelt High School, 98 juniors opted out of the math MCAs in 2016. Like Henry, Roosevelt is not a majority white school and almost seventy percent of its students qualify for free and reduced lunch.

Over at South High School–Minneapolis’s largest and most diverse–so few students took the MCAs in 2016 that there are simply blank spaces on the Department of Education’s spreadsheet for the school. That’s because, when fewer than ten students take the tests, the data has to be blocked out for privacy reasons. In 2015, 306 students–or nearly ninety percent of eligible juniors–at South did not take the tests. (The city’s Washburn High also had 81 MCA math test refusals in 2016; in 2015, there were eleven.)

Minneapolis’s two smaller high schools–Edison and North High schools–had very few opt outs in 2016 and 2015 (0 at North, both years), while Southwest High School has had large and growing numbers of opt outs–191 in 2015 and 251 in 2016. High schools in St. Paul are also reporting an increase–often from zero up to double digits–in the numbers of students refusing the tests, but the opt out movement appears to have more legs in Minneapolis.

Point of confusion: In Minnesota, districts can set their own graduation requirements, and, reportedly, some are putting MCA scores on high school transcripts to indicate whether or not a student is “college and career ready.” A student’s MCA scores can also be used, per Minnesota statute, as part of a course grade or as a way to try to avoid being placed in remedial classes in college. Students, however, still do not have to take the MCA tests (test refusal can be noted on a transcript as well). Most college-bound high school students undoubtedly choose to focus their energies on either the ACT or SAT test, even as more and more colleges are becoming “test optional.”

Districts in the metro area and beyond also reported large numbers of opt outs among eleventh graders in 2016. Examples: last year, Hopkins High School had 158 refusals, up from zero in 2015; Wayzata High School had a tiny number of opt outs in 2016–just 12, out of 786 eligible juniors–but that’s up from zero opt outs the year before. Blaine High School, a large, suburban school north of the Twin Cities, saw 100 MCA refusals in 2016; Burnsville High School, south of the Twin Cities, had 30.

Not much of a crowd–except when you consider that zero Burnsville students and only three Blaine juniors refused the MCAs in 2015.

This week, the state’s Office of the Legislative Auditor released a report on standardized testing in Minnesota. The report noted that the state spent $19.2 million on testing in 2016, with one-third of that paid for with federal dollars. Ninety percent of this tab went to the companies such as Pearson that produce the tests and help the state assess test score data. 

The auditor’s report revealed a number of problems with standardized testing in Minnesota, including the conclusion that the legislature has piled too many tasks and expectations on the MCA tests in particular. MCA scores are now expected to show proficiency on the state standards, as well as growth (through the addition of test questions that push students above or below grade level) and a student’s “college and career readiness.”

From the state report on standardized testing (page S-4):

The Legislature has required MDE to develop tests and report test scores in certain ways. Some of these requirements are ill-advised.

State law requires that the MCAs include questions above and below a student’s grade level. However, due to federal requirements, MDE has been unable to use these questions in calculating most of the test scores it reports. As a result, statewide tests have been lengthened for all students without much benefit.

Dolores Ramos, 16, right, joins dozens of Highland High School students in Albuquerque, N.M., as students staged a walkout Monday March 2, 2015, to protest a new standardized test they say isn't an accurate measurement of their education. Students frustrated over the new exam walked out of schools across the state Monday in protest as the new exam was being given. The backlash came as millions of U.S. students start taking more rigorous exams aligned with Common Core standards.

Albuquerque, New Mexico high school students; AP photo

State law also requires MDE to report a score based on the MCA describing each student’s progress toward career and college readiness. But such scores for elementary and middle school students are methodologically problematic. Projections extending far into the future have a high level of uncertainty, and some of them are likely to be wrong.

MCA tests scores are also used in teacher evaluations (per state requirement) and, in some districts, to evaluate principals, too. Another key finding from this report? Across the state, “Many principals and teachers do not feel prepared to interpret much of the testing data reported by MDE.”

In response to this, at a March 5 presentation of the auditor’s report, Republican state representative Sondra Erickson (who has served on ALEC’s education task force) suggested that perhaps teachers need more training in how to interpret test data.

If more students continue to refuse the tests, perhaps such further training will not be necessary. 

The level of testing nonparticipation among high school students in Minneapolis Public Schools has reached the point where it is no longer appropriate to endorse the test results as a valid measure of districtwide student learning.

–Office of the Legislative Auditor’s 2017 report on standardized testing in Minnesota (79)

Meanwhile in Minnesota: Lack of school counselors have experts worried,” as the state has no mandate to fund counselors or maintain a certain number per student.

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Minneapolis’s Previous School Board Can’t Vote on Proposed Policy Manual

January 10, 2017

Tonight, the new Minneapolis school board members will be seated. Just before that meeting, last year’s board will hold a ceremonial event to welcome the new members and conduct the oath of office.

What will not happen is a previously expected vote by the departing board on two key issues: 1) the revised policy manual largely orchestrated by outgoing member Josh Reimnitz, and 2) the make-up of the district’s Workforce 2020 advisory committee. In a December post, I spelled out the concerns with the revised policy manual, which is based on a somewhat obscure model called Carver Policy Governance

After months of work in 2016, it seemed as though the board’s policy committee, led by Reimnitz, would be able to get the policy manual passed at the December board meeting, despite concerns that the proposed revisions (intended to guide the school board’s work) had yet to be thoroughly vetted by the public. Adding to this concern was the seemingly sudden realization that no Equity and Diversity Impact Assessment had been completed for the new policy manual, although such an assessment is a district requirement for any new, notable “future policies, practices, programs and procedures.”

This realization–that no such assessment had been done–killed chances for a December vote. Rumors then circulated that the 2016 school board would get one more chance to push a vote through on the revised manual. That’s because the first meeting of the new year includes a nod to the outgoing members, as noted above, and a suspected (planned upon, really) opportunity for the exiting board members to squeak in a couple of votes before the new board is officially seated.

Not true. Statute dictates that the departing board members’ voting rights were valid until December 31, 2016, and not a day after. Reimnitz (along with the other two outgoing members, Tracine Asberry and Carla Bates) will therefore not be able to weigh in on whether or not the board should adopt the trimmed down policy manual he helped craft. (Many close observers say the manual is simply not ready for prime time, either. and in need of further hashing out.)

The policy manual vote is nowhere to be found on tonight’s agenda. Neither is any further discussion of who should be on the district’s Workforce 2020 committee. This committee is a state-mandated advisory group, and it must include community members who will attend monthly meetings and advise the school board on “rigorous academic standards and student achievement goals and measures.” All board members were allowed to suggest two names for this committee; those names were then slated for approval at December’s board meeting.

But that didn’t happen. Instead, the board came to an awkward pause that night, when it appeared not all board members were prepared to sign off on the Workforce committee–as the suggested names had not been previously given to the board for review. Should the board vote in one fell swoop on something they hadn’t seen until just then? Questions like this caused citywide representative, Rebecca Gagnon, to stop the process. Three hours and ten minutes into the four-hour long meeting, Gagnon told board chair Jenny Arneson that she “didn’t know we were voting on this tonight.” 

“We’re not, unless we approve it,” Arneson quickly replied. But, unless Gagnon had spoken up, it seems clear that the vote on the committee’s make-up would have sailed forward, with no public discussion on the proposed names on the list. Does it matter? Maybe not. But at least two names on the list–Al Fan and Kyrra Rankine–stand out as worthy of further scrutiny.

To be eligible to serve on the district’s Workforce committee, participants are supposed to be “teachers, parents, staff, students, and other community residents invested in the success of Minneapolis Public School students.” But Kyrra Rankine has been a longstanding Teach for America–Twin Cities employee, and Al Fan is the executive director of Minnesota Comeback, a moneyed education reform group with a declared goal of creating “30,000 rigorous and relevant seats” (?) in Minneapolis, by 2025–in “sector neutral” settings. 

Sector neutral means any school setting–charter, private, public–is fine, so long as it “beats the odds” for kids in poverty. This may be one (arguably unsuccessful) way to fund education, but it is certainly not the same thing as being “invested in the success of Minneapolis Public School students.” The public doesn’t “own” Minnesota Comeback the way it owns a public school district. There are no meetings posted on the Minnesota Comeback website, and no elected officials sit on its policy and “talent” committees. Minnesota Comeback is wielding influence with minimal public oversight. There are no four-hour long videos of any Minnesota Comeback gatherings to pour over and report on. 

Democracy!

The Minneapolis Public Schools might be a bureaucratic mess in the eyes of many, but it also must answer to the public through open meetings, a democratically elected school board and public data requests. Minnesota Comeback must, presumably, only answer to its funders, such as the Minneapolis Foundation, which described the group this way in a December, 2015 newsletter:

  • Minnesota Comeback (formerly the Education Transformation Initiative) will develop a portfolio of strategic initiatives and school investments to ensure that all Minneapolis students attend high-quality schools by 2025.

Minnesota Comeback and Teach for America are frequent darlings of the local philanthropic community, as evidenced by the Minneapolis Foundation’s 2017 grant cycle. Should their representatives have a seat on a Minneapolis Public Schools Workforce 2020 committee?

Perhaps, but it seems that is a conversation the school board should have in public. And, with the rush to vote stopped, it looks like that’s what citizens just might get in 2017–for the proposed policy revision and for the Workforce 2020 committee.

Also up tonight: a shuffling of school board officers. Jenny Arneson will no longer be board chair. Instead, Don Samuels, Nelson Inz and Rebecca Gagnon are vying to fill her spot. Vice Chair is expected to go to Kim Ellison, while Arneson has put her name in for Treasurer. New board members Bob Walser and Ira Jourdain are said to be interested in taking over Reimnitz’s seat as Clerk, who oversees the board’s policy committee. The meeting starts at 5:30 p.m. at Davis Center headquarters and is broadcast live online here.

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No Equity Assessment, No Problem? Minneapolis Schools Ponders a Major Policy Shift

Monday, December 12, 2016

On Tuesday, December 13, at a regularly scheduled meeting, the Minneapolis school board is set to vote on whether or not to approve a radical overhaul of the policy manual that guides its work. This vote will be the culmination of nearly a year’s worth of revision efforts, started by policy committee chair, Josh Reimnitz. 

In November, Reimnitz lost his bid for a second term on the school board. Instead, his District 4 seat will be taken over by newcomer Bob Walser. But, before he departs, the board will have a chance to either approve, scrap or delay a vote on the complex policy manual rewrite that Reimnitz initiated. 

First, a little background info: Reimnitz’s still-viable 2016 campaign website says he undertook the policy manual makeover because the current one is so outdated and cumbersome that the board “can’t tell if we are in compliance of our own policies!” The current manual originated in the 1960’s (Dark Ages!) and is almost as long as War and Peace, apparently. Reimnitz’s work, with input from his fellow policy committee members, has whittled that tome down to around twenty pages. That is an accomplishment worth paying attention to, even as it raises questions about what, exactly, is being put through the shredder.

Reimnitz’s redo is based on the Carver Policy Governance Model, a seldom used approach (as far as school boards go) that significantly streamlines and limits what a board can or should do. The goal with the Carver model is to have boards focus more exclusively on what gets accomplished, rather than how it gets accomplished. Basically, any Carver-guided board is supposed to focus on the ENDS and not the MEANS. (The all-caps come from the Carver website.)

It seems logical to assume that Reimnitz’s attempt to move the Minneapolis school board in a Carver-shaped direction fits well with the district’s current strategic plan, Acceleration 2020. This plan includes the corporate catchphrase that “schools are the unit of change,” which implies they should be largely left alone to govern themselves–as long as student achievement and graduation rates are increasing. (This concept is not well-defined, however, in the plan.)

Acceleration 2020, is supposed to help free the district from burdensome, bureaucratic over-management. Switching the school board to a Carver, Policy Governance model is supposed to do the same thing. Here is a quick overview of how, in my understanding of the Carver approach to board governance:

  • The Carver model is designed to be “absolutely” hierarchical, by offering greater deference–and greater responsibility–to the superintendent.
  • Board members hire the superintendent and hold him or her accountable to agreed upon ENDS and ethical guidelines, but that’s pretty much it. 
  • The board should act as a whole, and not try to win influence for pet projects or separate, constituent-driven concerns. Board members should also not, in the Carver view, provide “advice and instruction” to district staff. This would be interpreted as board interference with the superintendent’s authority.
  • The board should be seen as operating with “one voice.” Any board vote–even a 5-4 decision–is to be taken as a mandate by the superintendent. Board members who disagree with an outcome should not try to “influence organizational direction.”
  • The board should simplify by focusing only on the “whole of the system,” and not the “parts” that make it work. The day-to-day management or MEANS by which the district operates are not to be (within reason) in the purview of board members.

The Carver method carries with it a strong distaste for “micromanagement” by board members, and is designed to create a cleaner system, with the superintendent being given greater power to make decisions:

Board members should not have their hands in micromanaging, instructing, and otherwise interfering with the proper role of administration. There is also no place for what Carver terms “sabotage,” (Carver) the purposeful undermining of a board’s decision by an individual board member who has a personal agenda that he will not relinquish and which the board deems has negative effects on the organization (Carver, “Remaking Governance,” 27-28).

This seems to fly in the face of the reason Minneapolis has a nine-member board. In 2008, at the urging of Minneapolis state legislator, Jim Davnie, Minneapolis voters passed the “ABC” referendum, expanding the school board from seven to nine members, with the majority representing various city districts. Previously, board members were all citywide candidates, elected to “govern the system as a whole,” as Pam Costain, then a Minneapolis board member, put it in 2008.

So, under a Carver-guided Minneapolis school board policy manual, board members will be strongly discouraged, one assumes, from advocating for issues and concerns in their specific corners of the city. This switch in focus would put the board in a strange position, since the November election swept in three new board members–Kerry Jo Felder, Ira Jourdain, and Bob Walser–who were elected to represent three distinct areas of the city. These new board members won’t be seated until January, 2017. Therefore, if the board votes on December 13 to approve the new policy manual, without input from these incoming board members, will these board members now be expected to act as citywide representatives?

Maybe this would be the best way to run the board, but who has determined this? The adoption of this new policy manual has not been put to the public (widely), and most of the work on it has been done by a small group of board members who serve on the policy committee. There have been, to my knowledge, no district-wide, well attended community meetings about the new thinking behind the policy manual overhaul. 

The Carver Policy Governance model is intriguing, but not intuitive. It is complicated and centered around a distinct theoretical approach to board leadership, intended to give as wide a berth as possible to the superintendent or CEO of an organization. In so doing, the Carver approach has board members create ethics-minded, big picture limitations for the superintendent that are spelled out in the negative.

  • Here’s one example, from the most currently available draft of the new policy manual: “…the Superintendent shall not cause or allow MPS to…Permit MPS families to be unaware of: What shall be expected and what shall not be allowed in and from classes, courses, activities or other services.”

I can imagine that families without a great deal of grounding in the legalese of board policy would have a hard time grasping what the shift to the Carver model is all about, especially if English is not their first language. It also appears that no Equity and Diversity Impact Assessment has been done regarding the proposed policy manual, even though, in 2013, the district agreed to do so for “all future policies”:

Minneapolis Public Schools is committed to identifying and correcting policies, practices, programs and procedures that perpetuate the achievement gap and institutional racism in all its forms. In order to apply corrective measures, MPS leaders are required to apply the Equity & Diversity Impact Assessment to all future policies, practices, programs and procedures that have a significant impact on student learning and resource allocation.

Why, then, would board members vote on a major policy shift (adopting a Carver governance model) without first seeing an Equity and Diversity Impact Assessment?

Another concern raised by those who have more closely tracked the policy committee’s work on this is that the Carver model concentrates an awful lot of power in the superintendent’s hands. There may be advantages to this, and the concept is worthy of public discussion, but it also represents a significant philosophical shift for the Minneapolis schools. The new policy manual has the potential, for example, to put labor negotiations solely in the hands of the district, while, previously, the board has shared responsibility for that. Similarly, as I understand it, the proposed policy manual has dropped the board’s requirement that the district pay “fair wages” to its employees. Instead, the superintendent would be trusted with these actions, and then held to how well they support district “results,” or ENDS.

Further, in an era of privatization, diminishing public resources and the pressures of the market-based education reform movement, the proposed policy manual includes this eye-catching directive:

MPS is dedicated to involving and engaging partners who are committed to helping MPS accomplish the Board-approved Results objectives. As such, the Superintendent shall neither cause nor allow MPS to withhold pertinent information, excluding individual student and staff data, from external partners or individuals.

Without limiting the above, the Superintendent shall not cause or allow MPS to avoid partnering and information-sharing on topics such as resource allocation, student achievement outcome summaries, or major shifts in practice.

“The Superintendent shall not withhold pertinent information from external partners or individuals?” Hmm. With the privately funded, privately run Minnesota Comeback lurking around the edges of the district, hoping to create 30,000 “sector-neutral,” “rigorous and relevant seats by 2025,” this policy provision should be subjected to further public debate. Minnesota Comeback, which is part of a national, billionaire-fueled education reform network called Education Cities, has the potential–and the unfettered bank account–to seriously disrupt the collective agency of the district. (The group’s ability to pick winners and losers is beginning to show up.)

Should the school board’s new policy manual simply give privately run entities like Minnesota Comeback the keys to the store, through a further concentration of power in the hands of a superintendent? 

This largely corporate model of governance is being marketed by Carver and many who have trained under him to the non-corporate world of public education. Is Policy Governance viable for district boards of education and the administration of public schools? An examination of the history, philosophy, tenets, marketing, and practice of Policy Governance in public education reveal that Carver’s model is not consistent with the principles of democratic-republicanism, does not fit the political realities of the American experience, and is operating without the understanding or consent of the public at large. However, if one wishes to see the end of local control, the erosion of democratic practices, and more power shifting to authorities in far away places, then Policy Governance has much to offer.

–Bobby Chandler, teacher and researcher. 2007

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Building Bridges at Lucy Laney School

December 7, 2016

On a recent weekday morning,  the air inside the third grade science classroom at Lucy Laney School was electric. We’re building bridges today! Twenty-two pairs of eyes watched with intrigue as their teacher, Mr. Teigland, demonstrated the day’s goal: construct a bridge out of plastic connecting pieces and then pile textbooks on top of it to see how strong it is.

With a mixture of delight, devotion and distraction, the kids clustered together at small tables in groups of two, three and four. They waited–some more calmly than others–for Mr. Teigland to plop a box of red, blue, yellow and white bridge-building pieces in front of them. Then, the design work began.

Some savvy students found the sample bridge Mr. Teigland had put together, and set about building their own version of it. Others dug in to the plastic pieces without a plan, stitching together impossibly long or lopsided constructions sure to collapse with the slightest nudge from an unwitting classmate.

Soon, the bridges were being positioned across a gap between two tables, to see if they were strong enough to pass the strength test. Could the bridges hold at least three textbooks?

Not many could, at least initially. Trial and error–an essential life skill–was put to use, with endless reconfiguring of height, length and weight distribution. Some kids rose to the challenge with dedication; others collapsed more readily, like the bendy bridges they were building.

Success came from teamwork and tenacity–skills that not every third grader in Mr. Teigland’s morning class is in possession of (yet). Maturity varies as much as their height, weight and dispositions. Some kids couldn’t resist chatting, bragging and poking their neighbor’s emerging creations, while others quietly dug into the day’s work, understanding what was being asked of them and how to make it happen (within the forty-five minutes or so allotted to the project). Some people are fond of calling young children scholars, but, in my view, that’s too stuffy a term. They are messy creators, eager explorers, and babbling brooks flowing off course, into fields not yet conquered.

These kids need room to move, real work to do, and the patient guidance of adults and peers. That last one can be hard to stick to. When everyone is present, there are twenty-five kids in Mr. Teigland’s room, which he manages with his right-hand man, an associate educator named Mr. Johnson. Two adults, twenty-five kids. This ratio would be a dream scenario for many teachers I know, but it is still an unfortunate overload, for adults and kids alike. (The challenge involved in coaxing, corralling, convincing and creatively inspiring a group of young children to move in one direction is awe-inspiring.) 

Twins! Teigland and Johnson

There is no bridge connecting these kids to Betsy DeVos, Trump’s nominee for secretary of education. If DeVos’ nomination wins approval–and no one should assume that it won’t–then the market-based education reform movement will be unmasked and unleashed. Kids who attend high poverty, “failing” schools like Lucy Laney will suffer the most, as they have in Detroit. There, armed with millions of dollars, DeVos has applied guerilla-like pressure to the city’s school system, hammering it into a million shattered pieces.

Here is a recent overview from the Detroit Free Press:

This deeply dysfunctional educational landscape — where failure is rewarded with opportunities for expansion and “choice” means the opposite for tens of thousands of children — is no accident. It was created by an ideological lobby that has zealously championed free-market education reform for decades, with little regard for the outcome.

And at the center of that lobby is Betsy DeVos, the west Michigan advocate whose family has contributed millions of dollars to the cause of school choice and unregulated charter expansion throughout Michigan.

DeVos promises a frightening plunge towards a moneyed, fundamentalist takeover of our public schools, but will it be worse than the kinder, gentler face of the market-based reform movement that so many Democrats and self-proclaimed progressives have clung to for years? For evidence, take a look at Democrat Cory Booker, a highly touted senator from New Jersey. Booker, who was on Hillary Clinton’s VP shortlist, sat on the board of DeVos’ Alliance for School Choice and frequently, enthusiastically appeared at the DeVos-run (and Walton/WalMart funded) American Federation for Children policy events.

In other words…

This is true in Minneapolis, too, where politicians and civic figures with long-standing progressive reputations have lined up behind ed reform, shilling for such “transformational” things as charter schools, choice and Teach for America

Meanwhile, in a brightly lit classroom, on a gray Minneapolis morning, there are bridges to be built.

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Goodbye, Eli

November 13, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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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From Laney with Love

October 22, 2016

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

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

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

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

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Gearing up for the Laney Fun Run

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

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

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Ready to run

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

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

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

laney-at-wirth-1

Maps, paths, leaves

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

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

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

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Learning about leaves

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Journaling at Wirth

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Drawing plants

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

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

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

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

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MinnCAN Shifts as Minneapolis School Board Race Gets “Animated”

October 1, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Aaron Glassman's The Harbormaster

Aaron Glassman’s The Harbormaster

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

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

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

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

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

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Wow! Big Buddies Trump Testing for this Kid

September 22, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

Who will it be?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

–Carol Black, “A Thousand Rivers”

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

September 13, 2016

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

One-time Teach for America superstar, Michelle Rhee

One-time Teach for America superstar, Michelle Rhee

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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