Tag Archives: South High School

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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Do Not Interrupt a Girl Doing a Dandelion

April 25, 2016

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

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

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

Violetta 1


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dandy 3


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Jesse Hagopian: Test and Punish has Got to Go

So, did you know that the very thing that’s guaranteed to close the “achievement gap” (standardized testing, duh) has its origins in the eugenics movement?


Teacher Jesse Hagopian, during a 2013 “Scrap the MAP” protest

And, did you know that some of the first people to speak out against these purposefully racist tests were radical black intellectuals?

Ooh. Double awkward.

These were some of the fun facts Seattle high school teacher Jesse Hagopian–one of the nicest radicals you could ever hope to meet–dropped during his recent swing through the Twin Cities, on a book tour for More Than a Score: The New Uprising Against High-Stakes Testing.

Jesse covered a lot of ground during his two-day visit to the Twin Cities. From the dimly lit auditorium at Minneapolis South High School to the comfy John B. Davis hall at Macalester College, and on to St. Paul’s labor-focused Eastside Freedom Library, he wowed groups of students, teachers, parents, and community activists with his views on education, testing, and the power of communal action.

I was lucky enough to attend all three events, but I think my favorite experience was listening in at South High School, as some of the school’s students interviewed Jesse after he spoke in the auditorium.

First, let me congratulate the South High School student journalists on their excellent interview prep skills–these kids had some great questions ready for Jesse. And, they were joined by three additional student leaders who are not on the paper, the Southerner, but came to listen and ask their own questions. 

High school students are so great, and so were their questions. 

Jesse gets grilled

Jesse gets grilled

Here’s a few of them, with a summary/paraphrasing of Jesse’s answers:

Isn’t it mostly privileged white kids that are opting out of testing? (Don’t hold back, kids!)

  • Jesse: This is a question about who has access to information. Even though low-income people of color are most impacted by test and punish policies, they might not have the same access to information as whiter, wealthier people. And there are a lot of people of color, like Karen Lewis of Chicago, who are currently leading this movement because these tests measure access to resources, not someone’s intelligence. And, we need to reveal the racist origins of standardized testing. 

How can students legitimize the movement?

  • Jesse: I think it’s happening. Thousands have opted out in Colorado, where tests were tied to graduation. Well, they can’t deny everybody a diploma, so it worked. And, in Santa Fe, the student-led walkout was huge. We need to uncover the first cadre of test resisters, and get back to education with a purpose. In the Freedom Schools from the 1960’s students had to go vote as their final exam. We also need to move away from global competition, and practice global collaboration. The 1% is doing just fine, but meanwhile we have endless wars and have spent trillions of dollars just to lay waste to the Middle East, and get oil. Public education should be about global solidarity instead.

But, with a government that values top down change, can it ever come from the top?

  • Jesse: All important changes that have come about have come through grassroots movements. The 1% wants to eliminate critical thinking in order to maintain gross inequality. A global struggle against high stakes testing is an important way to fight this.

If we don’t have tests, how should we evaluate teachers?

  • Jesse: Let’s apply some scrutiny to politicians and ask them, “Are you funding our schools properly? No? Then you’re fired.” Look at Finland, too. We should be making teaching a sought-after, prestigious profession. Flood the schools with resources, to set the teachers up for success. Observations are important, too, and time for collaboration with other teachers. A main problem with education is that we don’t support our teachers.

We have heard people say that opting out will hurt our school. Does it impact funding?

  • Jesse: There were over 67,000 families who opted out of testing in New York last year, and there has been no impact on funding. It is an empty threat. Every school in Washington state is a “failing” school, because we have not agreed to tie student test scores to teacher evaluations (a demand of the Obama administration’s “Race to the Top” plan). Every principal had to send a letter home, saying “your child attends a failing school,” because every student was supposed to be “100% proficient” on testing by 2014, under the No Child Left Behind law from 2002. That is ridiculous.

Finally, on the important topic of race and test scores, Hagopian had sympathy for parents and students of color who may be slow to embrace the opt out movement:

  • Jesse: We have a legacy of deep, entrenched racism, and there are legitimate concerns from families of color about whether or not their kid’s needs are being met at school. People are trying to carve out sanity in an unequal world, and opting out may not seem worth it. But, rote learning and an individualistic approach to education (that pits students and schools against each other) is not going to end institutionalized racism.

Radical black intellectual indeed.

Jesse Hagopian with veteran SNCC activist Frank Smith