Minneapolis schools aim high with new planby Art Hughes, Minnesota Public Radio
The Minneapolis school board unanimously approved an ambitious list of goals for the district's next five years. The strategic plan is garnering praise from city and state leaders for its breadth and boldness to combat difficult issues, such as declining enrollment and pervasive under achievement by minorities. But others, such as the teacher's union, worry the goals are also an excuse to reduce compensation for staff.
Minneapolis — The recommendations approved by the seven-member board can fit on a single Power Point slide. But state Education Commissioner Alice Seagren told board members the document holds the potential to blaze a new path for the district and its students.
"The new course that you set tonight by accepting these reforms in their entirety will position Minneapolis to serve as a beacon of hope, and the promise that a large urban school district will truly succeed and be an example for the rest of the nation," Seagren said. "The governor and I are counting on you, and will stand with you as you carry out these reforms."
Seagren is referring to the goals to increase academic rigor, improve professional development and set high expectations for both staff and students.
The recommendations began as a set of solutions identified by the management consulting firm McKinsey and Co., and honed through months of meetings with community members and administrators.
Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak urged board members to not flinch in adopting and following through with the recommendations.
"People have said over and over, 'When are we going to get a strong superintendent and a gutsy school board and have them do the bold plan we need to actually have change happen?'" Rybak said. "We have finally come to that moment now."
Some of the recommendations remain vague and unmeasurable. They direct the district to "transform relationships...with families" and "build widespread internal and external support."
But others apply numbers and sound an ominous tone for some existing practices. The goals call for restructuring the bottom 25 percent of the district's schools. In five years, 80 percent of all the district's students will reach college acceptability on the ACT. Staff will have clear expectations and low performers will be removed.
This last line adds to worries by the teacher's union, which is in the midst of difficult contract talks. Minneapolis Federation of Teachers President Robert Panning-Miller thinks the district will point to the plan as an excuse to roll back provisions, such as teacher seniority, that allow veteran teachers to move to other positions if theirs is cut.
"It's something that is under attack in lots of districts," Panning-Miller said. "Most districts don't have the strong seniority that we have, so it's all the more reason for them to go after our contract language."
Still others are concerned the plan doesn't go far enough. Board member Chris Stewart sees the current language as a list of watered-down, nice-sounding ideas that everyone can agree on.
"We're getting criticism in some ways about our recommendations being too vague," Stewart said. "And when I look at this -- you say, 'Raise expectations and academic rigor for all.' So what's the opposite of that? Don't raise [expectations]? Duh."
Stewart voted for the plan but says the hard work of following through remains.
Sharon Henry-Blythe, the longest serving board member, agrees the strategic plan needs careful and strong guidance from here on out, and none of the board members will escape, in her words, being scratched and scarred. But Henry-Blythe says this is the boldest step she's seen in her tenure.
"I have sat here for seven years," Henry-Blythe said.
She went on to read from the goals: "'Eighty percent of all Minneapolis Public Schools students reach threshold score on college entrance exams.' Do you hear that? We're so busy talking about everybody failing we don't even get to a discussion about college entrance exams and ACTs. We have put a stake in the ground. We've drawn a line."
The strategic plan approved by the board provides an overarching set of principles that inform future steps. The district intends to have a more specific explanation of what changes are necessary next spring.
- Morning Edition, 12/12/2007, 7:20 a.m.