Autonomy or Laboratory

Do you know how it feels to distrust an institution, be hopeful when new people come in, and then be disappointed when the “new” starts to look like the “old?” That’s how I feel about the Minneapolis Public Schools. In the late 2000’s, a number of new people joined the school board in a reform movement that looked to refocus decision making so it would consider the needs of students first. Many of us were excited to finally have parents on the board which had long felt like it had uncomfortably close connections to business and construction interests in Minneapolis.

In the last couple of years, I’ve increasing felt we are back to opaque decision making with questionable outcomes and poorly managed communication. A prime example is the new school funding formula. Last spring, families with kids in special education found out the new funding model was going to decentralize the services many of them received. What they weren’t told is that the new funding model was in year two of a three year roll out and that a lot of money had been spent on consultants who had planned this new strategy. Families who initially thought they might be able to affect the announced changes soon discovered it was much too late for that.

The new funding model puts control of more of school budgets into the hands of individual schools, but may not always provide the funding needed for the expanded programming that results from this new model. Add on top of that the  Community Partnership School experiment that was rolled out at four schools this year, and one wonders if MPS is trying to create a district of charter schools or just a laboratory with our kids as the rats.

The elementary school I attended in the 70’s was the testing ground for my district’s bright new ideas. We had new curriculum every year with new teaching methods based on new ideas about how kids learn. Sometimes we even changed strategies in the middle of the year. Reflecting back on that experience, I’ve felt that it was largely detrimental to the kids who were subject to all these high concept teaching methods. I know it had a negative impact on my later success in school.

This personal experience may explain why I got upset as the idea behind Community Partnership Schools was explained to me. Four schools in MPS are being given a lot of autonomy to decide how they are going to run their schools and how they are going to engage with the district. This model is not based on what the community wants, but on the plans of the district, which has consistently been vague about the details, even as schools applied to participate. It sounds like four laboratories to me: four sites allowed to make lots of decisions on their own so the district can learn what works…and what doesn’t. In addition, it lays the ground work for wider adoption of charter schools.

It worries me that in a district with a poor track record on engaging and empowering marginalized communities, these four schools self selected to participate based on the desires of the (mostly white) staff. How do I know the staff are mostly white? Because the teaching staff at MPS are most white, something that is very out of step with the diverse communities that make Minneapolis their home. Just another problematic aspect of MPS.

I understand that this “local school control” model is quite popular right now, but for a district facing many challenges, decentralizing responsibility for the services provided to students does not seem like a good way to improve outcomes for students or increase parent trust. It creates even more challenges around being transparent and accountable, both of which MPS already struggles with.

While all this is happening, the district is busy looking for a new Superintendent. In a blog post this week, David Fox raised some important issues about the search process, how community engagement has been managed, and the quality of the finalist candidates.

I think there are some on the school board who still have good intentions, but we all know where those can land you. I am frustrated with the district administration of MPS doing their best to obfuscate what they are doing, why, and to whom. For a district at the center of a lawsuit over segregated schools, I would think MPS should be working to build trust with district families and engage in culturally relevant ways, not continue business as usual.

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