Tag Archives: Minneapolis Public Schools

Minneapolis Public Schools Stands By Administrator with Side School Choice Consulting Business

January 17, 2018

In 2017, according to Minneapolis Public Schools staff, the district’s General Counsel, Amy Moore, investigated whether or not district administrator Bryan Fleming’s consulting business constituted a conflict of interest, per MPS policy 3000.

The conclusion reached was that Fleming was not in violation of the district policy. He was therefore allowed to keep his job as Director of Enrollment Management within MPS and retain an interest in his business, Fleming Education Group. This business, as noted in a January 16 blog post, is dedicated to steering families (with means, it would appear) into the “right” school for their child, whether that is a Minneapolis public school or not. 

Fleming was hired by the Minneapolis Public Schools in 2016, reportedly during Michael Goar’s brief tenure as Interim superintendent. At that time, his private consulting practice had been in operation since 2015. A look at the Fleming Education Group’s website reveals a list of documents and services prospective clients can access, including a “School Choice Checklist.”

This checklist is frequently put to use during divorce proceedings, according to sources familiar with Fleming’s work. One client, whose spouse retained Fleming in 2016, shared documents with me yesterday regarding the work Fleming completed for them. (Because this case involves a minor, I will not include names.) The couple was going through a divorce then, which resulted in a dispute about where the couple’s child should attend school.

Fleming, per the documents shared with me, walked the parents through an extensive process of evaluating whether or not the child should remain in the Minneapolis Public Schools or be moved, as one parent wanted, to a well-known private school. The family resided in Minneapolis and, as mentioned, the minor in question was already attending a Minneapolis school. Fleming offered the parents a side-by-side comparison of the two schools (one private, one a Minneapolis public school) in question.

Although Fleming’s recommendation in this particular case was to keep the child in their Minneapolis school, his research revealed no particular preference for the Minneapolis Public Schools. When it came to class size and curriculum, for example, the private school being considered (The Blake School) came out ahead of Minneapolis for the following reasons:

Fleming is being paid, one assumes, by the Minneapolis Public Schools to promote the district and help sell its schools to the public. Can the Fleming Education Group also promote a highly selective school choice process, without conflict? Perhaps Fleming is no longer actively involved with this outfit; the website, however, still lists Bryan Fleming as the founder and principal. No other employee or partner name is provided. 

According to documents available on the Fleming Education Group website, this consulting gig is no small time affair when it comes to either cost or the evaluation process. Clients wishing to retain the Fleming Education Group must pay $1500 up front for services that will be billed at $185 per hour.  This is clearly a niche market, geared towards wealthy families who are seeking school placement advice, either because of a divorce or a recent move to the Twin Cities.

Whether or not this service should exist is not the question. The question is why someone who founded and maintains a service like this should also be employed, at taxpayer expense, as the enrollment manager for the Minneapolis Public Schools. Especially, of course, when the district is facing an ongoing loss of students and a resulting drop in per pupil funding (leaving the more vulnerable students behind to be educated and cared for with fewer resources).

And per pupil dollars matter. On the above-mentioned 2016 Fleming Education Group report, The Blake School’s far higher per pupil funding was highlighted as a reason to consider it over the Minneapolis Public Schools:

This strikes me as a transparent conflict of interest. 

As a note of contrast, a handful of teachers and parents spoke out at the last Minneapolis school board meeting, on January 9. They were there to talk about “what is missing” in their schools and classrooms, as part of a union-led organizing campaign. Bethune Elementary School kindergarten teacher, Greta Callahan, told board members that “what’s missing is a basic understanding of what poverty and trauma look like, and what children right here in our city are going through.” 

99 percent of Bethune’s students live in poverty and 93 percent are students of color, according to Minnesota Department of Education statistics. Callahan spoke at the board meeting about the kinds of trauma her students deal with every day, from “siblings dying to living in foster homes, shuffling between shelters…and so much more.” 

I wonder. Does the Fleming Education Group steer any prospective parents to Bethune?

Callahan told board members that her classroom is a “sacred space filled with freedom and joy for five-year olds.” Trust has been established, she indicated, thanks to the “trauma-informed” practices that Bethune staff have adopted. Callahan then said this trust had been recently violated when a district administrator visited Callahan’s classrooms and spoke with her students without first introducing herself or asking Callahan which students could be approached and which should not be (this is what trauma-informed best practices look like).

One girl broke down in sobs when the administrator finally left, having been alarmed and confused by a stranger approaching her. “It is not okay,” Callahan insisted, her voice thick with emotion, that “a basic understanding of trauma is absent and missing from our district counterparts.”

South High School English teacher, Corinth Matera, also spoke at the board meeting about “what’s missing” at her school. “Despite the list I’m going to give you,” Matera told board members, “there are beautiful, incredible and powerful things happening in our building every day, because of our amazing students and brilliant staff.”

But this powerful work takes a toll on students and staff, Matera insisted, before listing what the school “carries on without,” such as “a full-time chemical health counselor,” which South had until a couple of years ago, as well as “windows and light, the number of engineers we need to keep our building clean and safe, training in restorative justice for our whole staff, and sufficient language interpreters for parent conferences” so that all families can fully participate in their children’s education.

Another missing piece? “Class sizes that allow us to effectively teach students to write,” Matera noted, before finally asking school board members to support the union’s current contract proposal. 

On the Fleming Education Group (FEG) website, a look at the kind of thorough, thoughtful, “child-centered” evaluation clients receive is provided. Here’s a sample of the process:

FEG’s process is rooted in the philosophy of meeting children’s diverse learning needs and promoting their healthy cognitive and social development.  Underlying this philosophy is the guiding principle that children have a better chance to thrive in safe, stable, robust learning environments that are equipped to meet a child’s specific learning profile. Adhering to this ‘child-as-learner-first’ process ensures that school placements are successful….

Is this same care and concern also applied to the children who go to Bethune, South and every other Minneapolis public school site? 

“The freedom to teach what the teachers decide is important (not tied to state curricular, textbooks and testing mandates).”

–One of the benefits of choosing a private school, according to Fleming Education Group

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Minneapolis Public Schools Administrator Runs a Side School Choice Consulting Business

January 16, 2018

When it comes to declining student enrollment for the Minneapolis Public Schools, it looks like the fox may be guarding the hen house. 

Bryan Fleming

Bryan Fleming, who has served as Director of Enrollment Management for the Minneapolis schools since 2016, runs a side consulting business that offers “School-placement Advising for families and family law practitioners.” Fleming’s side gig bears his name–Fleming Education Group–but no mention of his role as a current employee of the Minneapolis Public Schools. His bio simply states that he is a “former educator and school administrator.” 

Fleming may be collecting an undoubtedly generous, taxpayer-funded salary from the Minneapolis schools, but that doesn’t appear to have made him a champion of public schools. Instead, the consulting company that bears his name offers this note for prospective clients:

Fleming Education Group helps clients manage their fears and anxiety about educational options, and strive for child-centered solutions in every instance. We know how to broaden a family’s school-choice lens in a productive, efficient way to achieve the outcomes that will maximize their child’s promise.

“Broadening a family’s school-choice lens” is an interesting position to take for someone employed by a pubic school district–particularly one that is struggling to stay afloat amid the endless proliferation of school choice schemes. But the Fleming Education Group is clearly targeted to families with choices, the kind that can easily walk away from a school they deem unworthy or unfit for their children. 

Need proof? Just read through the blog post currently up on the Fleming Education Group website. Called “Debunking ‘Private–Why a Private School?’,” the post is a declaration of love for exclusive private schools. The blog post, part of a series called “Thoughts by Bryan,” offers Fleming’s thoughts on the value of a private education–and the freedom these schools enjoy by “admitting only those students appropriate to the mission.”

Here are the first four paragraphs of the  Fleming Education Group’s blog:

Those of us with children in private schools have chosen our school for many important reasons, one of which may be that it is an independent, or “private,” school. Yet when family, friends and neighbors ask, “Why do you send your student to a private school?” many of us find it difficult to articulate the answer.

Our difficulty may stem, in part, from the fact that we chose our private school for many intangible reasons that are hard to put into words. And sometimes we might be concerned that our answer will trigger a debate about the merits of public versus private school.

At Fleming Education Group, our client families pose this question more often than not. I want to help make answering “why a private school?” in general, and “why Breck, SPA, Blake, Minnehaha Academy, International School or Providence Academy?” in particular easier for anyone exploring school-placement options.

Especially here in the Twin Cities where there are so many excellent, non-private school options (Eden Prairie, Edina, Hopkins, Minnetonka, Orono, Wayzata and many more), it’s important to focus on understanding the value of independence, as this is truly one of the things that can make private-independent schools worth the investment.

This is jaw-dropping. The Minneapolis Public Schools’ own Director of Enrollment Management runs (according to his LinkedIn page) a side business built around steering families into private schools. The “many excellent, non-private school options” Fleming’s post mentions does not even include the Minneapolis Public Schools. 

Fleming is  a full-time employee of the Minneapolis schools. As I understand it, full-time employees of the district are not allowed to operate side consulting gigs that directly conflict their paid employment with the district. At the very least, the district has a “conflict of interest” policy.

This came to a head in 2016 when Associate Superintendent, Lucilla Davila, was placed on leave for her involvement in a business that provides after-school programming. Davila was reinstated in January, 2017 although she is now listed as being part of another side consulting business, Global Immersion Network Consultants (GINC), with a very similar-sounding, educational mission to that of the Minneapolis Public Schools’ Multilingual Department.

Fleming was the Director of Admissions for the prestigious Blake School from 2000-2014. He then took a short turn as an employee of the Bush Foundation, a key, local philanthropic group that has been very supportive of market-based education reform efforts. In 2014, the Bush Foundation gave a $200,000 grant to the Education Transformation Initiative. This is very important to keep in mind here.

The Education Transformation Initiative became Minnesota Comeback, according to a 2016 press release from Minnesota Comeback:

Incubated by The Minneapolis Foundation as the Education Transformation Initiative, MN Comeback is an independent nonprofit organization based in Minneapolis.

Minnesota Comeback is a local group with ties to a national, billionaire-funded reform outfit called Education Cities. Education Cities’ mission, carried forward locally by Minnesota Comeback, is to spread school choice and facilitate the growth of charter schools, under the guise of a “sector neutral” preference for “High Quality Seats.” They want seats as opposed to schools  because “seats” open the door to investors (in education technology, for example) that traditional, union-staffed public schools might not.

The charter schools being given funding, PR and “growth opportunities” by Minnesota Comeback and their supporters need students from the Minneapolis Public Schools in order to survive and further weaken the district. (A district, weakened by design through chaos, reduced funding and poor management, for example, is a boon to charter school operators.)

Enter Bryan Fleming. As Director of Enrollment Management for the Minneapolis schools, he has key insight into what families want from the Minneapolis schools and what their reasons are for leaving the district. He appears to have a side business that promotes school choice and indicates a clear preference for the greener grass at fancy private schools while the Minneapolis Public Schools struggles with shrinking enrollment and the accompanying loss of funding.

If this isn’t a conflict of interest, then what is?

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Minneapolis Teachers Union Pushes for Smaller Classes, Less Testing–and $15 Minimum Wage

November 22, 2017

Last night, the best seat in town for education advocates was a folding chair inside the squat, workaday headquarters of the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers. It’s negotiation season for the union, and the stakes are high.

On one side of the table sat a handful of Minneapolis Public School administrators, including Chief Human Resources Officer Maggie Sullivan and Michael Thomas, the district’s second in command behind Superintendent Ed Graff. Sullivan, Thomas and the other MPS admin remained silent during the negotiations. Instead, labor and employment lawyer Kevin Rupp did the talking.

The district reps might have felt outnumbered. In a sharp departure from past union-district negotiations, MFT members packed the florescent-lit room with a sea of union blue t-shirts, alongside a smattering of community observers. Pro-labor posters, constructed at a recent “Art Build for Public Education” event, lined the yellow walls of the negotiations room, showing that MFT, under new leader Michelle Wiese, is working to embrace social justice unionism

Economic hard times pose a sustained threat to hopes for improvement in the social welfare. Savage inequalities in the public education available to children of different racial and class backgrounds reflect growing social and economic polarization and squander the potential of our youth. Gaps between schools and the communities they serve are widening. The price of continued decay in public education and social well-being will be paid in reduced prospects for a democratic future.

–Rethinking Schools: “Social Justice Unionism,” Fall 1994

Negotiations–always a tense display of political theater–have become strained, thanks to the school district’s recent request for mediation. Moving to mediation means the public will be shut out of future sessions, although the district has agreed to meet publicly through 2017 (negotiations will be held on December 5 and 19 at MFT headquarters in northeast Minneapolis).

Requests for mediation are not new. In 2013, it was MFT that asked to close negotiations to the public, under former longtime president Lynn Nordgren’s leadership. This sparked a protest by education reform outfits such as Students for Education Reform and their allies from the now-dormant Put Kids First group.

It may have been easier back then to declare the union an old school, obstructionist mess, although that narrative has always been driven in large part by the anti-labor forces attempting to decimate workers’ rights across the United States. CNN Money, of all places, recently took a look at what Wisconsin teachers are facing in the wake of Governor Scott Walker’s Koch and ALEC-fed actions.

It’s not pretty, and it’s not just about teacher pay and benefits; the destruction of unions in Wisconsin is pushing teachers and professors out of the state, and diminishing prospects for students. This example is worth keeping in mind amid ongoing calls to bring more people of color into teaching. What kind of jobs will they be offered?

At MFT last night, the union and district gnashed teeth over several union proposals. One striking call, led by Andersen United Community School teacher, Kristen Melby, was for clean schools. Fifteen years ago, Melby said, the Minneapolis schools had five hundred building engineers; today, there are less than two hundred and fifty. There are fewer students now, too, but protests in recent years have focused on the lack of cleanliness and care at MPS sites like Andersen.

Further MFT proposals dealt with special education caseloads and paid time off for teachers who must fill out onerous piles of paperwork associated with providing special education services. The district took a break midway through the negotiations, to confer, caucus and prepare their rebuttals. The district then responded to previous union proposals, most notably around class size and standardized testing.

Speaking for the Minneapolis Public Schools, Rupp said the district would refuse to negotiate around either of these issues. The union had previously proposed that the district mandate only the minimum amount of testing required by the state, arguing that any additional standardized testing pushed on the schools is costly–in terms of technology, labor, and lost hours of teaching and learning. (Schools often have to close their computer labs for weeks or months at a time, for example, to accommodate testing demands, and they have to pay someone to act as testing coordinator.)

In explaining MPS’s refusal to discuss testing, Rupp cited Minnesota’s Public Employment Labor Relations Act which he said puts questions of “educational policy within the School District’s sole authority.” Rupp also said that this law “protects democratic representational government,” by allowing elected school boards to make policy decisions. 

District administrators ponder MFT proposals

This struck me as a curious argument, since the school board is often criticized for being too involved in district operations. Some board members, past and current, have also repeatedly maintained that their only role is to hold the Superintendent–the board’s one employee–responsible for his or her own policy and hiring decisions. The board is not supposed to make policy, right?

Allowing teachers a greater say in what happens in the classroom, including how students are assessed, is an oft-repeated goal of both social justice unionism and education reform groups, who often insist that top-down management of school districts is a big problem. Also, as union leaders pointed out last night, MPS has been toeing the testing line since No Child Left Behind, yet little, if anything, has changed in terms of student outcomes (according to standardized test scores).

Is it time to “rethink assessment”? If so, who should lead this work? Teachers or administrators? School board members? 

The district also refused to discuss class size, claiming not only that the district is solely in charge of this, but that negotiating smaller class sizes would cost MPS upwards of $37 million per year. Impossible, Rudd claimed, in light of the $33 million budget shortfall MPS is wrestling with.

The dire financial straits facing MPS are real, and Graff and the school board have publicly addressed them. According to the November 14 school board meeting, raising class sizes by one student per classroom across the district, while also bringing the smaller classes at high priority schools up to district averages, is on the table. This is heartbreaking, especially in a wealthy state like Minnesota.

The district may not be willing or able to move on topics like class size and testing right now, although there are legitimate questions about who will most likely bear the brunt of the upcoming budget squeeze (a squeeze brought about, in part, by previous district admin and their expensive reform plans). Still, the sight of one hundred or more teachers, social workers, school librarians and support staff joining together to push for smaller class sizes, less standardized testing and more time to devote to their students is a hopeful one.

To be fair, the November school board meeting also offered many intriguing clues about MPS leadership. It is to be expected that the district and union would be at loggerheads during negotiations, but, in watching video coverage of the November meeting, I see signs of progress from within MPS.

FIrst, uncomfortable and damaging budget realities are being openly discussed in new ways. The Minneapolis Public Schools, for example, must pay the special education costs for students who attend charter or private schools outside of the district. They must pay these costs but retain zero control over the quality or level of service the students receive, thanks to state law.

Also, the Minneapolis Public Schools faces millions in cross-subsidy costs for the special education and English Language services it must provide (and should provide, of course). This means that, although the state requires the district to provide such services, it does not provide enough funding to cover the cost. Therefore, MPS has to take money–to the tune of $56 million for special education alone, in 2016-2017–from each student’s per pupil funds to pay for the services they are required by law to provide.

While the general fund is being asked to pick up a greater and greater share of non-general-fund expenditures, the general fund itself has lost considerable ground to inflation. If the base education funding formula had simply kept pace with inflation since 2003, it would be over $600 per pupil higher today.

2016 Star Tribune editorial by Rebecca Gagnon, John Vento and Bruce Richardson of the Association of Metropolitan School Districts

Charter and private schools, as I said, can bill their special education costs back to the district. Charter schools only pay ten percent of the cost themselves. This is a problem the legislature needs to address–quickly, especially as the Minneapolis schools face increasing competition from charter schools that promise better outcomes for students but perhaps do not pay their share of costs for these “better outcomes.” 

The union-district negotiations will move behind closed doors in January 2018. That’s a shame, because the conversations embedded within them are worth paying attention to. The union is pushing for many things, including a living wage for all district employees, since MPS remains exempt from the move to a citywide minimum wage of $15 per hour. These efforts will hopefully go a long way towards shifting the narrative around public education from failure to solutions.

This idea of “bargaining for the common good”—and working in partnership with local allies—is not a new idea for labor unions, but its potential has never been fully realized, and past efforts have not gone deep enough. One major obstacle has been that labor law tries to limit unions to bargaining just over issues of wages and benefits.

“Unions have been significantly hobbled by the legal regime, and a lack of imagination to challenge it,” says Stephen Lerner, a longtime labor organizer.

–Rachel Cohen, “Teacher Unions are Bargaining for the Common Good.” American Prospect, June 2016

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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 Southwest High School Investigation Leads to Administrative Shake Up

August 2, 2017

“We look forward to appointing these new assistant principals as quickly as possible.”

With that, Minneapolis Public Schools administrator, Cecillia Saddler, confirmed rumors swirling through the district’s Southwest High School community: when school starts up again in August, the school will be without three of its four administrators. In an email sent to parents and staff on August 1, Saddler informed them that assistant principals Sue Mortensen and Brian Nutter are “leaving the Southwest community.” 

This notice comes on the heels of the surprise July 28 announcement that Southwest’s longtime (and high profile) principal, Bill Smith, is retiring–a year earlier than most people expected. Mortensen, according to Saddler’s email, is also retiring while Nutter–a young, Roosevelt High School graduate–has been moved to an administrative role in the district’s Davis Center headquarters. 

Bill Smith in his Southwest office

This news sent shock waves through the community, leaving parents and staff to wonder what has caused all three of these administrators to suddenly exit the school. Only Tara Fitzgerald, an assistant principal new to both Southwest and the administrative tasks of a large high school, will be returning to the school this fall. Saddler’s email gives no indication what, if anything, has caused Smith and Mortensen to suddenly retire, and Nutter to be moved elsewhere.

It is known, however, that an internal investigation has taken place at the school, although MPS officials have yet to share this information with the community. It is believed that the investigation began in 2015, before current superintendent, Ed Graff, took the helm. The fallout from the investigation appears to have included this last-minute administrative shake up at Southwest, a high school that consistently ranks high for both academics and community support.

On July 31, Southwest staff and parents gathered for an impromptu meeting to discuss the loss of the school’s administrative team. Among the concerns outlined by supporters was the level of upheaval this is expected to cause for the school and its students, as the August 28 start date rises on the calendar. Letting go of Smith and Mortensen seemed inevitable for those gathered, yet a desire to bring Nutter back to the school was expressed. He had been given the key tasks of managing both the school’s budget (which is buoyed by a private school-like foundation, in the face of shrinking district dollars) and schedules. And he has been instrumental, some said, in building relationships with students.

The fact that Nutter was responsible for these fundamental aspects of running a large high school led many to believe that he was being tapped to take over for Smith upon his eventual retirement. Why, then, is he being moved from the school?

Anyone looking for answers in Saddler’s email will be left wanting. Also, parents and staff seeking protection from district decision-making via the school’s “autonomous,” Community Partnership School status have thus far been disappointed. One parent assumed that the school, thanks to its carefully crafted, independent “by-laws,” would be able to now choose its own administrative team.

Not so fast, she was told. Those Community Partnership School by-laws are not valid unless they’ve been ratified by the district, and they haven’t. The Community Partnership School ballyhoo appears to have been a flash in the pan, anyway, as many expected. It was a project of previous interim Superintendent Michael Goar and former teachers union boss, Lynn Nordgren. Both are gone, and the “self-governed” Community Partnership School agreement they put in place just a few years ago–selling it as the solution to the achievement gap, of course–is on its way out. (SeeAll That Glitters: Top Down Change in MPS.“)

Saddler’s email does make it clear, however, that the community will be invited to help select replacement assistant principals in the next few weeks, although any final hiring decisions will remain in Superintendent Graff’s hands. Whether or not the reappointment of Brian Nutter is possible remains to be seen.

Southwest consistently ranks as one of Minnesota’s most successful high schools, based on its relatively high four-year graduation rates (hovering at or above the 80 percent mark for most student groups), its strong IB program and the amount of high level course offerings available. The school is whiter and wealthier than any other Minneapolis public high school (just over fifty percent of students are white), and sits in one of the city’s toniest neighborhoods. Still, it draws students from across the city and remains a school of choice for many–as evidenced by the looming, suburban style expansion the school recently underwent. (A contentious expansion at that!)

Smith is known throughout the district for being a non-stop booster of the school and is famous for showing up at countless events dressed in the school’s purple and white colors. He has an inside baseball reputation for being a tough administrator who has successfully stood between the district and the school for years (my 2014 interview with him regarding Focused Instruction, another short-lived district initiative, was telling). 

The IB approach tends to be more application, or outcome focused, where Focused Instruction is more of a skill set that promotes a right or wrong answer. Both methods are standards-based, but those of us who practice IB believe it is a holistic approach to living and learning. IB practitioners are interested in self-mindedness and collaboration.

–Bill Smith on his preference for the IB method

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Minnesota Comeback Cites “Laggards,” “Fringe Bloggers” as Problematic

May 10, 2017

In an email blast sent to supporters recently, the local education reform advocacy group, Minnesota Comeback, warned that “laggards” and “fringe bloggers”–myself included–are “spew(ing) false descriptions” of their work. 

Brand management experts warn: Don’t be a laggard!

With a subject line that read, “You’re an innovator. Diane Ravitch and fringe bloggers won’t get that,” the email sought to control Minnesota Comeback’s message of being the source of new thinking (and funding) on education. The pep talk continued later in the email, with a direct message to Minnesota Comeback investors, er…innovators:

On the innovation adoption curve, you’re an innovator. You’re a pioneer determined to do what it takes to make sure all kids have access to a rigorous and relevant education. On the opposite end of the spectrum: Laggards.

Laggards! The email then details the group’s current displeasure with Diane Ravitch, who maintains a widely read blog about public education and the political climate surrounding it. Ravitch apparently attracted Minnesota Comeback’s ire by reposting work from local writer and photographer, Rob Levine, who has recently launched a website critiquing education philanthropy in the Twin Cities. 

“It’s inevitable,” the email reads, “as our momentum builds…the higher our visibility in the public eye becomes.” It then goes on to cite the “praise” Minnesota Comeback’s work has earned. The citation–there is just one–is a link to an opinion piece about Minnesota Comeback’s good work, written by one of its own affiliates, Antonio Cardonia. This might actually be PR rather than objective praise, but I digress. 

Success, it seems, has led to unwarranted attacks from bloggers–like me, Ravitch and Levine–who avoid data and instead run on speculation and a laggard-like lack of dedication to rigor. “A growing trend of bloggers like Sarah Lahm, Rob Levine and Diane Ravitch spew false depictions of our work,” Fan advises the group’s email recipients, before complaining that, “what’s most troubling is the lack of accountability.” 

The email encourages supporters to go to Ravitch’s website and contribute positive comments about the group, so that Ravitch might be persuaded to interview Minnesota Comeback and offer a “fair” depiction of their work.

In the interest of fairness, I think it is important to consider a few things. First, Minnesota Comeback is part of a national organization, Education Cities, that is funded by a heavy hitting collection of billionaires, including the Gates, Dell, and Walton foundations. (For a review of the pitfalls of this kind of support, read Joanne Barkan’s 2011 piece, “Got Dough? How Billionaires Rule Our Schools.“)

Education Cities is also funded by the Laura and John Arnold Foundation. Arnold is a former Enron executive who walked away–wealthy and unscathed–from that company’s collapse. He went on, while still in his thirties, to lead a campaign against pensions for public employees. Rolling Stone writer Matt Taibbi included Arnold in a 2013 article about Wall Street-led campaigns to destroy public pension funds:

As Enron was imploding, Arnold played a footnote role, helping himself to an $8 million bonus while the company’s pension fund was vaporizing. He and other executives were later rebuked by a bankruptcy judge for looting their own company along with other executives. Public pension funds nationwide, reportedly, lost more than $1.5 billion thanks to their investments in Enron.

–Matt Taibbi, Rolling Stone Magazine, “Looting the Pension Funds”, 2013

After leaving Enron, Arnold became a billionaire through natural gas trading. This led to the John and Laura Arnold Foundation, which was, according to Taibbi’s article, “among other things, dedicated to reforming the pension system.” Pensions had been subjected to raids for years by politicians looking to fill other budget gaps, and were being painted, by Arnold and others, as an “unfunded liability” immersed in crisis (and thus desperately in need of reform).

Sound familiar? Arnold has a history of supporting campaigns that gut public entities amid a climate of “crisis.” The claim is always that there is no money. (He’s also helped rescue Head Start and provided money for “science reform.”) This might explain why the Arnold Foundation, along with the Waltons and Gates, and other titans of runaway capitalism, is supporting Education Cities, which in turns provides–if nothing else–the policy framework for Minnesota Comeback. (Local philanthropic foundations and individuals, in addition to the Walton Foundation, provide financial support for Minnesota Comeback.)

The Walton Foundation’s K-12 priorities–backed by over one billion dollars–can be found here, and analyzed here. (Analyzing the Walmart heir’s actions does not necessarily equal the “spewing of false descriptions” of their work.)

Here’s the thing. Minnesota Comeback is less of a new organization, rife with an unquestionable devotion to public education, and more of a sophisticated repackaging of familiar, market-based education reform priorities. After all, director Al Fan left a career in brand management at General Mills to focus on “social philanthropy, with a special interest in working with high-performing charter schools in Minnesota,” according to an online profile.  He may have left General Mills, but undoubtedly not without his brand management skills.

Fan first landed at Charter School Partners, a Walton Foundation-funded group with office space at 2800 University Ave SE #202 in Minneapolis (keep this address in mind). As recently as 2014, Fan was still leading Charter School Partners, whose stated goal, at one point, was quite audacious:

Charter School Partners strategic focus for New Schools for the Twin Cities is to help create 20 new high-performing, high-achieving charter schools in the next five years serving Twin Cities-area families who previously have not had access to excellent schools. This aggressive timetable reflects CSP’s sense of urgency that all children deserve a world-class education no matter their zip code or income levels.

–archived Charter School Partners website

This “aggressive urgency” might have come across as unbridled hubris–especially since it appears to have been accompanied by a lack of success. (For evidence of this, watch this Charter School Partners promo video, posted to YouTube in 2015, which showcases the talking points and plans for this group.) Charter School Partners dove, rather than waded, into tricky political waters by embracing naive charter school expansion plans, while also proudly announcing partnerships with Teach for America and financial support from the Walton Foundation (who profess to care about communities of color but won’t provide living wage jobs?). 

I’ll get you those high-performing charters!

Just a few years ago, under the Charter School Partners banner, Fan was clearly devoted to “aggressive” charter school growth plans (someone really needs to do a study of the he-man language around ed reform). A 2012 policy document from Fan’s organization displays the thinking behind the brand management. 

Here are a few examples from the document, called “Charters 2.0”:

  • Improve the “teacher talent pipeline” for charters that serve “high populations of poverty.” (This is a frequent reformer goal, intended–many analysts think–to benefit organizations like Teach for America.)
  • But…in the case of “blended learning” (a key area of interest for venture edu-philanthropists), Fan’s proposal advocated for teacher-less classrooms. Instead, teachers could “supervise delivery of instruction to online learning students” without being “physically present.”
  • And…maybe teachers aren’t that essential after all. The “blended learning revolution” could allow for “non-licensed staff supervising students working computer curriculum, without necessarily the direct supervision of the licensed teacher of record”–at charter schools.
  • It also sought to “incentivize” charter schools that outperform traditional public schools on standardized test proficiency rates. On the surface, this could seem like a great way to foster competition and a greater focus on student (testing) achievement. But, in the context of today’s education reform climate, it’s not really that simple.

These are the reform policies favored by the one-percent. They are also part of an ongoing, bipartisan embrace of a top-down “disruption” of public education. It doesn’t mean that every idea or person associated with these plans should be immediately dismissed. It just means that this is the framework–elite, philanthropist-funded, pro-privatization (sector agnostic!)–that comes along with these policy preferences.

Fan was promoting these policies as recently as 2014, before Charter School Partners morphed into Minnesota Comeback. And why did it morph? Maybe because charter schools became problematic, necessitating a rebranding. In 2015, for example, the Star Tribune published an article showing that, in Minnesota, charter school students were not doing as well as their public school peers. (They have become quite segregated, too, along with traditional public schools–a byproduct of this country’s move towards school choice rather than desegregation.)

Click to enlarge

Public awareness of market-based education reform and its connection to plutocracy, hostile takeovers of entire districts and lack of actual choice and voice for parents has grown. Enter Minnesota Comeback and its more “nuanced,” less bombastic approach to education reform. Same players, same funders–with a new name and a new game plan. (But still a lot to learn.

We can tell a lot, in fact, by reviewing the addresses of Minnesota Comeback and its affiliates:

  • Charter School Partners was housed at 2800 University Ave SE #202, Minneapolis. 
  • Minnesota Comeback is now housed at 2800 University Avenue, SE #202 Minneapolis. (Former Minneapolis school board member, Josh Reimnitz, was also a part of Minnesota Comeback’s launch, apparently.)
  • Morgan Brown, former Director of School Improvement for Charter School Partners, is now associate director of Great MN Schools, “ a venture philanthropy fund that aligns and maximizes investments in growing high-performing and high-potential schools in Minneapolis.” This org is also housed at 2800 University Ave, SE, #202.
  • Great MN Schools was “incubated” by MN Comeback, and appears to be oddly embedded within the Minneapolis Public Schools, where it is “considering a request for proposals from three Community Partnership Schools in the Minneapolis district.” (Beware public-private partnerships!) A Minneapolis school, Bancroft Elementary, even appears on the Great MN Schools website, as one of “their” portfolio schools–along with a handful of charters. 

There’s more.

That’s one tightly knit cabal of transformative innovators, with incredible access to more money than, perhaps, the Minneapolis Public Schools, with no obligation to hold open meetings, comply with public information requests or otherwise bow to the kind of accountability and transparency so often demanded of our put-upon public schools.

I have no doubt that many of the philanthropists and foundations that give their names and their money to Minnesota Comeback believe in the group’s stated mission, to “collaborate with diverse stakeholders in our K-12 ecosystem” in order to wipe out “education gaps.” The ultimate goal, according to Minnesota Comeback’s official communications, is to “ensure all K-12 students have access to a rigorous, relevant education.” 

We do need innovation, collaboration and support from wealthy investors (especially those who understand that education alone cannot fix poverty or wipe out institutional racism). We also need a free and fair press, fully equipped to check the claims–however well-intended–of those with the most power, wealth and influence.

Raising the minimum wage, or providing a guaranteed income, which the last time we talked seriously about that was in the late 1960’s, increasing workers’ bargaining power, making tax policies more progressive—things like that are going to be much more effective at addressing inequality and economic security than education policies. That argument is often taken to mean, *schools can’t do anything unless we address poverty first.* But that’s not what we were trying to say.

–Harvey Kantor. Education Can’t Fix Poverty. So Why Keep Insisting That?” Have You Heard Blog (fringe!)

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On Buckthorn, Neoliberalism and Other Invasive Things

May 1, 2017

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

River Birch in bloom

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Neoliberalism and Education Reform, 2007

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Minneapolis Parents Choose Community Over Testing

April 24, 2017

In early April, the Minneapolis Star Tribune published the results of a new online survey, completed by parents with kids in the Minneapolis Public Schools. The results offer a surprising revelation: most parents in the city do not choose schools based on standardized test scores.

Like many public school districts across the country, Minneapolis has had to focus in recent years on regaining its “market share,” in an era of ever-spiraling school choice schemes. Another Star Tribune article, this one from 2015,  laid the district’s challenges bare in the headline: “Thousands of Minneapolis children leave district for charters, suburban schools.” Thirty-six thousand students in the city attend the Minneapolis Public Schools, but, the article showed, more than 17,000 school-age kids do not.

The recent survey suggests that it isn’t test results, that induce parents to switch schools. Molly Leutz, a Minneapolis parent portrayed in the most recent article, said that test scores “didn’t even cross (her) mind” when looking at schools for her young daughter. Instead, word of mouth among parents, as well as “diversity,” ranked high on Leutz’s list. In the end, she chose to send her daughter to their neighborhood public school.

Other parents echoed Leutz’s priorities. Sixty percent of the 2,000 survey respondents based their decision on two factors: after-school opportunities (and other enrichment programs) and the “makeup of the student body.” These results further reflect studies done with parents in other communities, such as New Orleans. In 2015, National Public Radio education reporter, Anya Kamenetz, published a story showing that New Orleans parents—who live in what is supposed to be the most “choice-filled” city in the United States—do not put academic factors first.

“Parents, especially low-income parents,” Kamenetz found, “actually show strong preferences for other qualities like location and extracurriculars” when choosing schools for their kids. Despite the efforts of outside education reform interests, which have sought to create a network of New Orleans-style charters in place of neighborhood schools, “distance matters a lot” to parents there. This implies that, when it comes to school choice, community and convenience outweigh perceptions of test-driven success.

The Minneapolis survey also found parents ranked old-fashioned techniques such as report cards and parent-teacher communication much more highly than standardized test scores for “gauging student success.” Parents also believed that “hearing from a child” was more important than test scores “when grasping how a child is performing in school.” Perhaps even more compelling, the Minneapolis survey indicates that white and Asian parents were far more likely than black, Latino and Native American parents to “look to” test scores.

The article does not delve into why this may be true, but it does stand to reason that parents of kids who tend to score the highest on standardized tests—i.e., white and Asian-American students—may place more value on such outcomes. White and Asian-American students also, statistically, tend to be wealthier than other students, and standardized test results often reflect a student’s socioeconomic status.

In 2013, a survey of parents in Georgia by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute (a conservative think tank that typically favors charters) also showed that a majority of parents identified non-academic factors as the primary reason why they chose one school over another. The Georgia survey was done to support the concept of tax-credit scholarships (also known asneovouchers), used to send more students to private school.

In a way, the effort backfired. Less than 10 percent of parents said they looked for “higher standardized test scores” when selecting a school. Instead, things like smaller class sizes, safety and a “better learning environment” mattered more. Currently, many states are in the throes of preparing school accountability plans, as required by the federal Every Student Succeeds Act. While the transition to the Trump administration has brought some uncertainty for this new education policy, so far, it will allow states to move away from an over reliance on test-based measures of success.

Survey results such as the ones from Minneapolis should, if taken seriously, help policymakers understand that school choice systems built around standardized test scores may not be as important as having a safe, welcoming school in every neighborhood, where relationships and teacher-parent communication rank high.

–Originally published by The Progressive on April 20, 2017

Minneapolis Teachers and Staff of Color Get Jobs Reinstated

April 19, 2017

On April 18, the Minneapolis Public Schools was forced–under public and school board pressure–to rehire or reinstate seven recently fired teachers and staff of color. With the familiar chants of “Si Se Puede!” and “What do we want? Justice!” ringing through the oak-paneled board room, the board’s business as usual was disrupted until the protesters’ demands were met.

Protesters were initially denied entrance to the board room

It was a striking sign of (forced) progress for a board and district that often manages to hide behind protocol, privacy laws and confounding, community-killing procedural niceties. But the night did not belong to propriety and platitudes. Instead, teachers and staff who’ve felt bullied by the Minneapolis Public Schools and pressured into either resigning or being fired spoke publicly about their experiences, and were backed by the room-filling chants and signs of a supportive audience. (Organizing credit goes to the Twin Cities Social Justice Education Movement.)

In a write-up of last night’s meeting, the Minneapolis Star Tribune mistakenly characterized the staff members’ situation as that of budget-driven layoffs. But those who spoke out at the meeting, or beforehand, described falling victim to a systemic, deeply rooted practice of pushing out and punishing teachers and staff of color, as well as employees who advocate for students’ rights. (The Southwest Journal’s Nate Gotlieb wrote a very succinct, articulate review of last night’s meeting.) 

After a lengthy public comment period, when staff and supporters shared stories of being ushered out of their jobs, thanks to allegedly trumped-up charges of insubordination and so on, the board attempted to adhere to its previously outlined agenda. New board member Kerry Jo Felder, representing District 2 in north Minneapolis, insisted that the board address the employees’ concerns, although she recused herself, as a union employee, from officially weighing in on the matter. 

Several board members expressed discomfort over reinstating the dismissed employees, especially since there may be others in the same position who were not able to be at last night’s meeting. Board Chair Rebecca Gagnon warned that a rush to judgment may lead to unintended consequences, while citywide representative Don Samuels cautioned against making key decisions based on limited input.

Still, the protesters kept pushing, and they won. 

El pueblo unidos jamas sera vencido

–A chant heard at the Davis Center last night

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Minneapolis Teachers of Color to Protest Recent Firings

April 18, 2017

Budget cuts–and heads–are rolling in the Minneapolis Public Schools, prompting lots of behind the scenes chatter and a public rally, set for tonight’s school board meeting. The rally is being planned by the Social Justice Education Movement (SJEM), a local group that also produces the annual Social Justice Education Fair.

In a press release sent out on April 17, SJEM organizers said “six educators of color” will be speaking out tonight against “racist pushouts in the Minneapolis Public Schools.” These six educators, according to SJEM’s announcement, will be advocating for a change in district policies that are said to target students and staff of color. They will also be demanding that their jobs in the district be restored. 

SJEM logo, by Ricardo Levins Morales

Among these six are Lor Vang, whose story was shared on this blog last week. Vang was recently fired from Hmong International Academy without due process, he reports.  The SJEM press release also says that an African-American co-worker of Vang’s was fired around the same time, after being charged with insubordination. 

Michelle Barnes, who until recently was working as a special education assistant at the district’s River Bend site for students with “significant emotional, behavior, and mental health needs,” will also be there tonight.

Barnes’s experience of being fired from River Bend for “expressing concerns with punishing students who ‘misbehaved’ with cold instead of hot lunch” is included on SJEM’s press release, and taps into what appears to be a growing concern: the ease with which some MPS staff–tenured or not–are being dismissed from the district for seemingly small infractions. Stories often float along the edges of various MPS communities, of teachers being forced to resign or be fired (as Vang says he was) for clashing with administrators, or of support staff pegged as troublemakers for, as Barnes alleges, advocating for students. 

Eduardo.jpg

Eduardo Diaz

Bilingual teacher Eduardo Diaz will also speak out at tonight’s board meeting. Diaz is an ESL teacher at Andersen United Community School, a south Minneapolis K-8 site that serves a large percentage of students in poverty (98 percent), as well as English language learners. On SJEM’s website, Diaz, who is not yet tenured, relates a painful story of being told recently that he will not be rehired at Andersen next year, because he is “not making the progress they expected to see in a second year teacher.”

It may be impossible to know all of the factors at play in Diaz’s story, yet he says he has noticed a trend at Andersen:

I was made to feel inadequate, not good enough, and a bad educator. I found it odd that MPS advertises that it wants teachers who think differently and go above and beyond for students, yet they seem to get pushed out of the district at alarming rates.

The number is even greater when you analyze the teachers of color that were let go at Andersen over the last ten years, at least 17% out of 62 or 27% of teachers let go were teachers of color. 

I do not mean to say that the reason I was let go was because of my skin color but I find it hard to think that MPS would want to get rid of a male, veteran, immigrant natively bilingual Spanish speaker. 

Often, district personnel decisions are hidden behind data privacy concerns, making a full analysis of every situation difficult. In the sometimes harrowing void that falls from this, workers can easily be made to feel alone and, as Diaz describes it, “inadequate, not good enough.” This begs the question of whether or not there is enough (or the right kind of) support, transparency and coaching of MPS staff, especially for the teachers of color said to be in high demand.

Hanging in the background is a stark reality: the Minneapolis schools have been facing budget cuts for years (thanks to a statewide disinvestment in public ed), while the district’s percentage of higher needs students has grown significantly. Amid increased special education costs, as well as rising levels of inequality and poverty, MPS has pursued various neoliberal education reform “fixes,” adding to greater destabilization across the district. (Questionable alliances with corporate reform interests, teacher evaluation schemes, Teach for America staffers, Focused Instruction, outsourcing bus drivers and engineers, telling administrators they “have no voice” until test scores go up, destroying whole departments–these are some of the many viruses that have plagued the district in recent years, fueling dysfunction and a pervasive failure narrative.)

The destabilization makes the district more vulnerable to outside influences, such as Minnesota Comeback (at least two MPS employees appear to be active members of this group). Minnesota Comeback belongs to a national campaign, funded in part by Wal-Mart heirs, to reinvent (er, privatize) public education and turn it into a “sector agnostic” sea of “high performing seats,” rather than schools. The goal? To miraculously churn out kids for whom poverty and systemic racism is a thing to be overcome with standardized test scores. 

Into this mix, teachers and staff of color–as well as those who speak out–may find themselves feeling less protected.

In addition to being a dedicated teacher that is well-respected by staff, students, and families, Eduardo is also the only Latino middle school teacher at a K-8 school where over 50% of the students are Latino. Andersen needs Eduardo and the district needs to stop disproportionately pushing out educators of color. Come to the school board this Tuesday April 18th at 5pm to stand with Eduardo and others as we urge the school board to do the right thing! Let Eduardo continue to teach at Andersen! https://www.facebook.com/events/1901032760176615/

–Social Justice Education Movement

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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