All That Glitters: Top Down Change in Minneapolis

Top down reform is all the rage in education these days, from Arne Duncan on down to individual districts, like Memphis (taken over by the state), Little Rock, AK (wrestling with an attempted takeover by the Walton family and their Wal-Mart money), and New Orleans (all charter schools, all the time). 

Panic button? Image from Alternet

And, it is set to sink in further, here in Minneapolis.

Under the guise of wanting to provide schools “more autonomy,” the Minneapolis Public Schools is set to roll out four “autonomous” Community Partnership Schools (CPS), including north Minneapolis’ Nellie Stone Johnson (NSJ) K-8 School. In this CPS model, traditional schools will become more “autonomous,” and partner with a community organization. In Nellie Stone Johnson’s case, the presumed partner is the Northside Achievement Zone (NAZ), which is run by school board member Don Samuels’ wife, Sondra (lingering question: will Don recuse himself from the school board’s vote regarding this intended partnership, from which his wife’s organization stands to gain?).

Autonomous schools–which promise greater freedom and independence to a school, in theory, in exchange for more “accountability”–do have an appealing, “rugged individualism” sound to them. Many schools, in Minneapolis and beyond, are of course being suffocated by too many mandates, while simultaneously being starved by too little funding (public funding for schools in MN has declined significantly, since 2000, when, surprise!, demands for greater accountability began ramping up).

And, I can imagine that many schools desperately want and need greater flexibility in how they run things, given the constantly shifting demographics and needs of today’s public school students, staff, and families.

Thus the PR appeal of Minneapolis’ intended shift to a decentralized school district, with the big dream of lots of empowered, individualized school sites throughout the city. The problem, however, is that in an era of school district CEOs and politician-friendly top down management schemes (and “what if we dismantled the Minneapolis Public Schools” queries), this proposed push towards “independence” may not be as liberating as it seems.

Case in point: Nellie Stone Johnson. This K-8 school, which serves a population of “high needs” kids, is slated for big changes next year: 

Nellie Stone Johnson demographic info from ProPublica

Nellie Stone Johnson demographic info, from ProPublica

  1. It is supposed to become a Community Partnership School (the school board will officially vote on this at an April 14 meeting; let’s hope we see democracy–and not rubber stamping–in action).
  2. It will become a K-5 school, and will therefore lose staff members and send older students to a different site. (This is it’s own form of upheaval, of course).
  3. It will also have to pilot a new, more “autonomous” funding model, called Student-Based Allocations (this has connections to an ALEC bill, where public school $$$ is supposed to “follow” a student–this is ALEC’s way to undercut funding for public education). 

All of these changes are to be made all at the same time, and a clear question that should be asked is, “Whose idea was all of this?” The Community Partnership Schools’ “MOA” (Memorandum of Agreement) between MPS and the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers states that a key purpose of CPS sites will be:

Creating conditions where mutual respect is demonstrated by local decision making, effective collaboration, shared trust and meaningful relationships.

The MOA also states that any school wishing to become a CPS site must submit a detailed plan that documents the following:

Parent and community involvement in developing the plan; (ii) Staff involvement in developing the plan; (iii) Collaboration to establish buy-in and commitment to the model;

Recently, however, an email written by a Nellie Stone Johnson employee was sent my way, and it definitely raises serious concerns about whether or not Nellie Stone Johnson staff and community members were actually involved in the decision to become a Community Partnership School. (The email was also sent to school board members, I have been told.)

This could deal a serious blow to the claim that the Community Partnership Schools model is being designed from the ground up for all four of the schools slated to try this model on for size next year.

Here are some excerpts (tweaked by me, for clarity and privacy) from the email, which outlines concerns about the CPS model and how it landed at Nellie Stone Johnson school (NSJ):

  • This movement was forced from the district down. From a Union meeting I attended at NSJ, it should have come from the community up. It did not.
  • The principal sent in the letter of intent without direction from her staff. Less than thirty minutes after introducing it to the licensed staff, she told them she was going to send in the letter of intent. She asked for no discussion or feedback on this decision.
  • This CPS “opportunity” was announced at the very same time that the staff was told their school was going to go from a K-8 to a K-5. This information shocked staff, as they dealt with the blow that half the members would be gone at year’s end. (Several of those teachers were tenured teachers,  removing even more teachers of experience.)
  • The only people that the principal consulted with (on the CPS proposal) were licensed staff members.  Non-licensed staff members had little opportunity to discuss this plan or have a say in it.  
  • The CPS design team consisted of primarily new staff members, and some have questioned whether they were given all of the information to adequately understand the CPS model.
  • NSJ staff were told that the school was going to be a CPS no matter what and that questioning the plan would cause undue unrest amongst teachers.
  • At least two staff members were reprimanded for asking questions.
  • Most of the staff members can not adequately tell you what it means to be a CPS or autonomous school.
  • The principal told the staff just prior to the vote that if they voted No, she and the design team would revise the plan and hold another vote and another until they voted yes.
  • Many are worried about the quality of the Scholar coaches that NAZ will bring to the table. They are worried they are going to be in their way.  They will have to train the NAZ members. They worry about the school not having any say in who NAZ hires.
  • There was little to no parent involvement in the plan.  
  • No public/parent meeting was held that was specifically about CPS. A survey given to parents had questions that led to positive answers.
  • There is no parent/staff site council at NSJ. Community Partnership Schools are supposed to be parent and community focused and should have strong community support.  

I wonder if these concerns will be enough to stop the “autonomous” PR machine and compel the school board to pause and consider this: What will a Community Partnership School that has been designed without community input look like?

4 thoughts on “All That Glitters: Top Down Change in Minneapolis

  1. Mary Brown

    Thank you so much for piece. It used to be impossible get straight talk regarding MPS in this town; I am thankful for your presence.

    Reply
  2. Sam

    Such a disappointing article. We need to stop and think: What is the cost of NOT making these changes? What will happen to our students if we don’t try new, creative solutions? Poorly researched information from a clearly disgruntled source. What about the hours that teachers and support staff have poured into designing the Community Partnership Plan? Have you reached out to those staff members? I would love to hear about their innovations and ideas for making Nellie Stone a stronger north Minneapolis school. At the end of the day, we need to remember the goal: To craft students into leaders who take charge of their education and their lives. If we, as a community, don’t attempt to make drastic change, our students will continue to lose their dreams. As you stated in your article titled, “Full-Service Community Schools: Vision is Important” on August 10th, 2014 (located here at tcplanet: http://www.tcdailyplanet.net/blog/sarahlahm/full-service-community-schools-vision-important), “Go hear the stories for yourself. Then, let’s work together to give students access to all the resources, from eyeglasses to homework help, that they need.”

    Reply
    1. sarah.lahm@gmail.com Post author

      You had me at “poorly researched information from a clearly disgruntled source.” But seriously, Community Partnership Schools are not necessarily the same thing as full-service community schools, and a full-service school with wrap-around supports–which they have at Brooklyn Center High School, which is profiled in the TC Daily Planet article you refer to–is not what is being proposed for Nellie Stone Johnson. There is legislation moving through the MN Capitol that would provide funding for site coordinators for true full-service schools (there is a great one in Duluth, I am told), which would help districts fund schools that provide care for the whole child, and, sometimes, a whole family (through on-site mental and physical health clinics). I have done extensive research on the NSJ proposal, and I have heard the teachers’ ideas on what they would like to see for the school. The teachers were told that the district would not “just give them money” to implement what they deemed important, such as small class sizes, but that they could apply for this “great opportunity.” So, drastic change might sound good from afar, but is it sustainable?

      Reply
    2. Stef

      The students at Nellie Stone Johnson will be part of a hastily designed experiment on autonomous schools. It’s disappointing that the plan was developed almost exclusively by a small number of teachers, who do not live in the North Minneapolis community. We need to stop and think: why wasn’t there a good faith effort to involve students, parents, or community members in making this supposed COMMUNITY partnership plan?

      Reply

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