Tag Archives: Tracine Asberry

Minneapolis School Board Campaign Finance Reports Reveal…?

November 5, 2016

In 2012, Minneapolis residents got an education reform wake-up call in the candidacy of Josh Reimnitz. Reimnitz, then a Teach for America alum new to Minneapolis, won a spot on the Minneapolis school board after attracting thousands of dollars in campaign funds–the most, at close to $40,000, ever seen in what was once a low-profile race.

As Reimnitz’s campaign war chest grew, observers worried that the Minneapolis school board race was becoming “nationalized.” And, of course, it was. Just after Reimnitz’s 2012 victory, Minneapolis Star Tribune reporter Steve Brandt made this observation:

“Reimnitz won with a tidal wave of spending that set a record for a Minneapolis board race. Some came from friends but, even more important, from people he’d never met who are pushing a school-reform agenda.”

2012 was just the beginning.

In 2014, hundreds of thousands of dollars in outside money flooded into the Minneapolis school board race, mostly through the cleverly named Minneapolis Progressive Education Fund. This Fund, which operates as a political action committee, was set up by then-MinnCAN director, Daniel Sellers. Riding a wave of plutocrat interest in local school board elections, Sellers was able to attract large donations from some decidedly non-progressive sources. 

Illustration: Christoph Hitz

Illustration: Christoph Hitz

Billionaire education reform advocates such as Michael Bloomberg and Arthur Rock, a venture capitalist and Teach for America funder, plumped up the Fund’s coffers, as did local Republican party affiliates such as Ben Whitney and Edina resident Bonnie McGrath, who reportedly became deeply alarmed about the state of public education after viewing 2012’s reform blockbuster, Waiting for Superman.

In 2014, the Minneapolis Progressive Education Fund tried a strong-arm tactic by spending money on negative campaign literature, in favor of school board candidates Don Samuels and Iris Altamirano, and against incumbent Rebecca Gagnon. The strategy turned the race into an ugly, last-minute smear campaign against Gagnon, who nonetheless retained her seat on the board. Samuels also won. (The Fund has around $12, 000 in the bank. Final 2016 campaign finance reports, which would show whether or not that money gets spent, will not be available until January, 2017.)

The combination of Samuels and Reimnitz on the Minneapolis school board has not led to a puppet-like adherence to a reform agenda. Samuels seems like more of an outlier, voting against Michael Goar–the presumed favorite of the local reform community–during his bid to become the district’s superintendent. He also voted in favor of the board’s 2015 move to cancel its contract with the controversial Reading Horizons company.

Conversely, Reimnitz did vote for Goar. He was also one of two board members (along with Carla Bates) to vote against the decision to cancel the contract with Reading Horizons, whose curriculum was deemed racist and offensive by many in the community. If reform-supported candidates are supposed to bring group think to the board, it hasn’t happened yet.

2016 Campaign Finance Reports

Still, the education reform crowd appears to be betting on two candidates in this year’s school board race: Reimnitz and his counterpart on the board, Tracine Asberry, who is running for re-election in District 6. Neither one received the endorsement of either the DFL or the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers, perhaps endearing them to reform interests. Reimnitz is running against Bob Walser in District 4, while Asberry is facing a challenge from Ira Jourdain, who first ran for a seat on the board in 2014, and spoke out then against the “dark money” impacting the school board race.

Reimnitz’s most recent campaign finance report shows that he has raised close to $15,000 as of November 1. That is significantly less than he had in 2012, but currently more than any other candidate. The traces of reform money can still be seen on Reimnitz’s 2016 report, with donations from many Teach for America and charter school affiliates. Also telling: Reimnitz has attracted the support of wealthy Republican donor Ben Whitney and former Minneapolis mayoral candidate and charter school supporter, Cam Winton.

Reimnitz has also received money from Tad Piper. Piper, along with Ben Whitney, is a preeminent funder and supporter of local education reform initiatives, such as MinnCAN and now, Minnesota Comeback. Minnesota Comeback, which I have written about extensively on this blog, is a project of the national Education Cities movement, with a school choice-centered education reform agenda funded by billionaire philanthropists. The goal, according to Minnesota Comeback’s website, is to bring “30, 000 rigorous and relevant seats” to the Minneapolis area by 2025.

Reimnitz’s challenger, Bob Walser, has taken in about $8,000 in donations since August. It appears he is getting support mostly from District 4 residents, with a few out-of-state donations listed (in the past, Walser has said he has a wide network from his years as a traveling musician and teacher.)

Asberry’s campaign finance reports from 2016 are less detailed, with her most recent report listing only five individual contributors. The biggest reported donation she received was $300 from Matt Kramer, former Co-CEO of Teach for America. Asberry’s previous campaign report offers more information about her finances, including support from neighbors and local businesses, as well as from names familiar to those who follow education politics. This includes Lynnell Mickelsen, who often writes about education reform, and Kate Sattler, a supporter of the now-defunct MinnCAN organization.

In an email exchange from September, Asberry noted that she has a long-standing working relationship with Sattler, who had children in the Minneapolis schools and lives in Asberry’s district. Asberry also maintains that she has “deep, diverse, and committed support…from so many District 6 and MPS families,” whose names can be found on her campaign website. In a charged atmosphere fueled by reformer vs. union narratives, it is worth remembering that support for Asberry may be as much about efforts to defeat the union’s endorsed candidate, Ira Jourdain, as about any hope that Asberry will toe a reformer-drawn line. (Asberry did not vote in favor of maintaining the district’s contract with Reading Horizons, nor did she support Goar’s candidacy for superintendent.)

Jourdain, like Walser and the other two DFL and union-endorsed candidates, Kerry Jo Felder (running in District 2) and Kim Ellison (citywide), has received support in the form of mailings, phone banking and coordinated campaign events. Felder’s opponent, Kimberly Caprini, has less than $1800 in funds, and lists no donations over the mandated reporting amount of $100. Ellison has also taken in minimal funds, perhaps because her challenger, Doug Mann, does not appear to have launched a vigorous campaign. All campaign finance reports are available on the Hennepin County elections website.

Reform Tactics Shift

The influence of Minneapolis’s well-heeled education reform community is less visible this time around, but no less present. Minnesota Comeback, which grew out of previous philanthropic efforts to guide the Minneapolis Public Schools, has helped fund an election year side project called Animate the Race. With a promise of neutrality, Animate the Race has put money into hosting school board forums and providing social media coverage of this year’s race. It is being run by Daniel Sellers, who ran MinnCAN and 2014’s Minneapolis Progressive Education Fund.

On November 3, Animate the Race held a school board candidate event at the Children’s Theater. It was a lush affair, and a reminder of the good things philanthropy has provided for Minneapolis–such as the Children’s Theater and its incredible Neighborhood Bridges program. Tad Piper was there, circling the crowd, as was Al Fan, current director of Minnesota Comeback. (All current candidates, except Jourdain and Doug Mann were in attendance. Jourdain said he was busy door knocking in his district that night.)

There were not a lot of other people there. just pockets of reform supporters and little clusters of teachers, neighbors and organizers who don’t neatly fit into that category. All were treated to a sumptious-looking buffet of shrimp cocktail, chicken wings, fruit kabobs and giant brownie wedges. There must have been tons of food left over. I hope the Children’s Theater staff who worked the event got to take some of it home.

Animate the Race’s forum started off hot, with District 6 candidate Bob Walser saying he felt “manipulated” by being invited to an event billed as “non-partisan” but organized by the very person (Sellers, I am assuming, although Walser didn’t name him) that brought in hundreds of thousands of outside, “dark money” in 2014. Walser’s attempt to lead with this drew a harsh rebuke from some Animate the Race supporters, and threatened to throw the whole forum down an ugly, irreversible path. (Animate the Race is also funded by Minnesota Comeback, whose donors have given money to Walser’s rival, Reimnitz.)

But Walser recovered. So did the moderator, Reynolds-Anthony Harris, whose company, Lyceum Partners + design, is listed as an Animate the Race supporter. The atmosphere was barbed, but worth sitting through. At one point, candidates expounded on teachers they considered inspirational. Interestingly, most of them mentioned Minneapolis teachers like Crystal Spring and Flory Sommers, who both recently faced disciplinary action from the district’s HR department after advocating on behalf of racial justice concerns. 

If those are the kind of teachers our current and future board members admire, then perhaps there is hope. But the specter of the billionaire-crafted education reform agenda still lurks around the edges of Minneapolis, waiting, perhaps, for the right combination of funders or school board members to shake up the “status quo.”

Minneapolis: A “Recovery” District?

In a series of complex questions, which the candidates were supposed to answer with a quick yes or no, the moderator asked whether or not the hopeful board members would, once seated, vote to turn Minneapolis into a “recovery” school district–should district test scores and other, undefined measures fail to rise significantly.

This was the moment, and everyone in the room knew it. People rushed to turn their cell phone videos on, to capture the candidates’ responses to this loaded question. A recovery school district, like the ones operating in New Orleans and Memphis, are built around the “transformational” principles of neoliberal education policy. A 2013 article in the Atlantic about the takeover of the Memphis schools describes recovery districts this way: 

The city’s schools are on the vanguard of controversial changes reshaping urban education nationally, including decentralized control, more charter schools, increased use of data to determine which schools stay open, and a greater reliance on new teachers who come through alternative preparation programs such as Teach for America or the Memphis Teacher Residency

FEMA photo

FEMA photo

In New Orleans, there are no public schools left, only a landscape of charters. Hurricane Katrina created the ideal circumstances for a complete takeover of the city’s schools, according to a 2014 In These Times magazine investigation

With the public-school bureaucracy out of the way, powerhouses in the reform movement, such as the Walton and Gates foundations, came calling. In a 2006 interview with Education Next magazine, Mayor Ray Nagin put it this way: “They said, ‘Look, you set up the right environment, we will fund, totally fund, brand-new schools for the city of New Orleans.’ ”

And they did. 

“In sharp contrast to the glacial pace with which the levees were repaired and the electricity grid brought back online, the auctioning-off of New Orleans’ school system took place with military speed and precision,” writes Naomi Klein in her landmark 2007 book The Shock Doctrine. She holds up the takeover as a prime example of “disaster capitalism”: “orchestrated raids on the public sphere in the wake of catastrophic events, combined with the treatment of disasters as exciting market opportunities.”

This is the reform framework hanging in the background of the Minneapolis school board race. When the question about recovery school districts was posed at the Animate the Race forum, the candidates seemed frozen in surprise and uncertainty. No one seemed to know exactly what the moderator was actually asking them to do or say, or perhaps, they did not want to answer the question in a public setting. All either said no or abstained from answering, but in the hubbub, it wasn’t clear who said what.

A further, unspoken question hung over the room: Whose agenda is this?

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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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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Minneapolis School Board Race Takes Shape

April 11, 2016

Anyone who doubts the power or potential of an elected school board should have been at the Minneapolis Convention Center on Sunday, April 10. There, amid an engaged and sometimes raucous crowd, the Minneapolis Democratic Farmer Labor party (DFL) held its city convention, where delegates endorsed four new school board candidates:

  • Kim Ellison, who is moving out of her District 2 seat and running for a citywide seat
  • Kerry Jo Felder, who is now vying for Ellison’s soon-to-be vacated District 2 seat in north Minneapolis
  • Bob Walser in District 4, encompassing downtown and parts of south and southwest Minneapolis
  • Ira Jourdain in District 6, in southwest Minneapolis

All four of these candidates recently earned the endorsement of the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers (MFT), according to an announcement on MFT’s website. (Candidates Josh Reimnitz and Tracine Asberry declined to participate in the MFT endorsement process.)

Ellison had no contenders for the DFL citywide endorsement, making her selection the shortest one of the afternoon. In District 2, Felder, an education organizer for the Minneapolis Regional Labor Federation, gave an impassioned speech to city delegates. She spoke of her strong preference for “full service community schools” as a grassroots, bottom-up strategy for the city’s schools, and was flanked on stage by a troop of supporters in bright yellow campaign t-shirts. 

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Kim Caprini

Her rival, Kimberly Caprini, had a smaller crew of supporters–and came away with less votes–but also gave a compelling speech about why she should represent District 2 on the school board, telling delegates that, “the northside is always told no, but I don’t take no for an answer.” Caprini also detailed the advocacy work she does on behalf of a number of District 2 schools, including Olson Middle School and Patrick Henry High School.

In District 4, incumbent candidate Josh Reimnitz conceded the endorsement to newcomer Bob Walser before vote totals were announced. Reimnitz, a Teach for America alum, was first elected to the school board in 2012. Back then, as a new Minneapolis resident, Reimnitz coasted to victory with a little help from his friends in the education reform world, who added fuel, funds and fire to Reminitz’s campaign.

This time around–just four years later–those affiliations seemed like a liability. In his five minute speech to delegates, Reimnitz said he wanted to be upfront about his connections to Teach for America and education reform, drawing a few boos and hisses from the crowd. He also acknowledged that his 2012 campaign was funded by outside sources, because, he said, he was “new to Minneapolis.” In the end, his honesty was not enough to carry him past Walser, a long-time Kenwood resident who was surrounded by ecstatic neighborhood supporters. 

ira-jourdain_185

Ira Jourdain

Incumbent Tracine Asberry also stumbled on Sunday, losing the DFL endorsement to 2014 citywide candidate, Ira Jourdain. In a coin toss, Jourdain took to the stage before Asberry, and introduced himself in Ojibwe (he is a member of the Red Lake Band of Ojibwe). He then gave an electric speech, declaring his belief in collective bargaining, the opt out movement and DFL values. As he walked off stage, he was given a standing ovation by a number of District 6 enthusiasts.

This was a tough act for Asberry to follow, despite the line of supporters that followed her onto the stage. She said she had thought one of her supporters, Minneapolis teacher Tom Rademacher, would be allowed to speak on her behalf. Instead, because of Convention rules, she had to settle for repeating a quote from Rademacher about her work. Asberry, first elected in 2012, also reminded delegates about her time on the school board, saying she had abstained from voting on the district’s strategic plan, and had stayed in the room during last fall’s Reading Horizons protests, when most other board members walked out.

The last two Minneapolis school board elections–in 2012 and 2014–were contentious, and, to many observers, painful. In 2014, out of state reform interests made a serious play for the two citywide seats, dumping close to $250,000 in “dark” money into the race. That amount of money–which adds up to almost a dollar for every Minneapolis resident–largely went to negative campaigning, and may have acted as a shot heard ’round the city: the profit and power hungry reform movement was barging through our collective front door.

Although the April 10 DFL Convention ended on a jubilant note for most, will it be enough to keep the persistent and incredibly deep-pocketed reformers at bay? Only the months leading up to the November election will tell.

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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Reading Horizons story picked up by Utah newspaper: “Lazy Lucy” is not new to MPS

September 10, 2015

Background: If you are new to the Reading Horizons/Minneapolis Public Schools debacle, or would like a review, please start with my first post on this topic, Phonics or indoctrination?

In the wake of the September 8 Minneapolis school board meeting, a Salt Lake City newspaper has picked up the Reading Horizons story, bringing new heat–and new information–to this explosive topic. 

During the  school board meeting, board members grappled with whether or not to cut ties with Reading Horizons, now or in the near future, and risk losing the $1.2 million dollars already sent to the company. At the board meeting, interim superintendent Michael Goar admitted this contract with the Utah-based provider of reading curriculum and software had been “rushed”, and referred to it as “not a standard contract.”

Goar partially blamed the situation on staffing “shifts,” or the layoffs that have been a key tenet of his leadership thus far. He also said that some of the people responsible for bringing on Reading Horizons no longer work for MPS, meaning there are few who can further explain this decision.

Reading Horizons 9.8 Statement

Reading Horizons statement; click for a better view

The Reading Horizons contract (you can find it here), unfortunately, appears to be nothing more than a purchase agreement, with no protections built in for the Minneapolis Public Schools, should the goods and services they purchased be deemed–as they have been by many–unworthy of district use. 

In the middle of the board’s September 8 discussion, Reading Horizons suddenly issued a carefully worded, lawsuit-proof statement to the board, in which they take “full responsibility for our role in the issue.” Which issue? Whose issue? This is never made clear.

Instead, the statement says Reading Horizons only recently became aware of the “issue,” and since then has been working “around the clock” to rectify the unnamed problem, which centers around the “Little Books” they provide to school districts.

But the Salt Lake Tribune article makes it clear that Reading Horizons believes the “problem” resides with MPS, and not with their products. Reporter Rachel Piper got the low-down by interviewing Reading Horizons employee, Laura Axtell: Image result for reading horizons lazy lucy

Reading Horizons’ implementation coordinator Laura Axtell said the focus on these titles — there are 54 in the “Little Books” series — ignores the context of how they’re intended to be used. “Lazy Lucy,” for example, takes place in the safari unit, she said.

“But if people perceive that they’re culturally insensitive, then they’re a distraction to reading success.”

Axtell said the company, based in North Salt Lake, has been working with the district “around the clock” to make things right in Minneapolis and everywhere the books are being used.

Though “Lazy Lucy” never made it into Minneapolis classrooms, the series has been available for three or four years, Axtell said. She said she couldn’t say whether the books are used in any Utah schools.

Here are two important takeaways from this article:

  • Reading Horizons prioritizes decoding words–or learning how the English language works–above what the language is saying. This is the “value neutral” stance that some within MPS have also adopted as they express support for sticking with Reading Horizons. (To which school board member Tracine Asberry declared at the September 8 board meeting: “Children decode pictures, too.”)
  • The “Little Books” series were not specifically created for MPS, as some within the district have said. Instead, they have been in use–and, presumably, available for review by any district employee–for years now. 

Then there is the matter of how to “fix” this situation, and who should be paying for the fix. In the article, Axtell has this to say:

“The thing that has become very apparent is that we need diversity,” Axtell added. Although the Little Books look like storybooks, she said, they were produced by a small team with a specific technical focus: making sure each word could be “decoded” for pronunciation and comprehension with the tools taught in the wider lesson.

More people will be reviewing material going forward, she said, both inside the company and outside it, including teachers and parents.

“Our goal is to affirm cultural competency and equity,” Axtell said.

So, it seems the Minneapolis Public Schools chose to give a significant contract to a company that is lacking in diversity.

And now, the district is, essentially, paying Reading Horizons to learn how to be more “culturally competent.” 

Chaun Webster and his wife, Verna Wong in a City Pages photo

At the board meeting, the 45 minute public comment period–which MPS has not videotaped since 2010–was partially shut down by board chair Jenny Arneson, who became flustered when northside resident and public personality Al Flowers insisted on being allowed to address the board. (Flowers challenged MPS’s apparent policy of requiring people to sign up to speak ahead of time, online. On Tuesday, Minneapolis resident Shaun Walsh spoke out strongly against Reading Horizons; then, a string of  three MPS reading specialists addressed the board in favor of Reading Horizons’ phonics curriculum.)

Arneson’s actions prompted Minneapolis parent and business owner Chaun Webster–who has been vocal about his opposition to Reading Horizons–to stand up and chastise the board, saying, “I did not come here, as a parent, to have you all walk out on me.”

The meeting resumed and lasted 5 more hours, finally ending at 11 p.m. It was not until the very end that the public could, again, weigh in on the Reading Horizons deal. By then, only a handful of MPS employees and a smattering of citizens were left in the board room.

Overall, the mood was that of frustration and exhaustion. Board members Don Samuels and Josh Reimnitz seemed most in favor of sticking by Reading Horizons and giving them a chance to mend their ways. Samuels said MPS has an opportunity to “create transformation around educational materials,” by requiring Reading Horizons to “change all the old white guys” on their board, among other things.

Reimnitz praised Reading Horizons for “removing offensive content” from their materials, saying he would be open to working with them again because they have a “great curriculum” and seem willing to change.

Board members Siad Ali, Rebecca Gagnon, Kim Ellison, and Nelson Inz seemed far less supportive of Reading Horizons, with Tracine Asberry most explicitly decrying not only the company’s performance, but also MPS’s decision to partner with them in the first place. Student board member Noah Branch also spoke out against Reading Horizons, saying he found it “breathtaking that we are not cutting the contract right away.”

Tracine Asberry

Asberry counteracted the positive reviews MPS employees, such as Amy Jones, director of elementary education, and some board members were giving to Reading Horizons, saying the literacy needs of MPS students are now being used as an excuse to keep doing business with the company. 

“There is no silver bullet,” Asberry reminded the board. We are being told, she said, that “Reading Horizons will, all of a sudden, help our kids with literacy.” But, she emphasized, “I believe kids can learn to read and decode, and have a sense of their beauty.”

At last, Chaun Webster got the chance to address the board, expressing disgust and dismay with MPS and their treatment of those who are unwilling to overlook Reading Horizons’ deficits. 

We are not going away,” he told the board and interim superintendent Goar. “Our kids and students are still impacted by this.”

Piper’s Salt Lake Tribune article includes a full reprint of a September 9 resolution regarding Reading Horizons, which she attributes to the Minneapolis Public Schools. I can’t find this document on the district’s website, however, so I am not certain that it is a finalized statement. However, it appears that MPS is calling on Reading Horizons to “apologize” at the next school board meeting.

MPS also wants some money back, which may be tough to procure, given the non-standard purchase agreement/contract the district signed, as well as the fact that these Reading Horizons products have apparently been available and in use for years, implying that a diligent employee or two could have viewed the materials before signing on the dotted line. 

Board member Carla Bates even wondered aloud whether or not MPS had been the victim of a bait and switch move by Reading Horizons, as teachers and MPS administrators are saying that no one saw the offending Little Books until after the contract was signed. 

Perhaps no one will ever know exactly how MPS agreed to part with such a large sum of a money, in exchange for a phonics curriculum and a public relations disaster.

As for Reading Horizons, this whole episode, or “issue,” has prompted at least one immediate change for them: their website no longer prominently displays “Faith” as the company’s number one “Core Value.” 

A screenshot taken on September 9, 2015 provides a pre-edited look at the page:

RH Faith Cache

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