To solve racial disparities, parents, schools call truceby Tim Nelson, Minnesota Public Radio
Minneapolis schools are hoping a new cooperative agreement with African-American parents will smooth some of the hard feelings over school closings last year and help close the district's student achievement gap.
The idea is for black parents to help get their children ready to learn while the school district works with parents to help the kids succeed.
St. Paul, Minn. — On average, black kids in Minneapolis schools do about half as well as their white classmates. They get disciplined more often. They get fewer diplomas.
That education gap has been the source of an increasingly bitter struggle in the city, but a group of parents and the school board have decided to call a truce.
The district voted Tuesday, to work with parents on what they're calling a memorandum of agreement. It's modeled on other agreements, like a pact with the NAACP and St. Paul Police and American Indian families and Minneapolis schools.
Both sides hope they can solve the district's problems by consensus, without a political or legal struggle.
School board member Chris Stewart helped bring the board and black parents together.
"We have a strategic plan that expects us, by 2012, to have all kids 80 percent proficient in math and reading, to close the achievement gap by 75 percent and to have all kids college ready," he said. "It's mind boggling how you think you can do that with just strictly institutional solutions. You really need the outside community."
The move comes when tension between the district and African-American parents is strong. The newest target for that distrust came last year, when the school board voted to close four schools in North Minneapolis. The board shut down the buildings despite loud protests from the surrounding black neighborhoods.
Some of those opponents have been back before the board this spring, including Kinshasha Kambui.
"The will of our community was really being ignored," she said.
Kambui represents African American Mobilization for Education and helped lead discussion of what she called a new covenant between black parents and Minneapolis schools.
"We bought into the idea that outside experts knew more about our children than we do. Clearly, that's not true," Kambui said. "We know our kids. We're the experts on us. We might not know much about anything else, but we know about our children. We know what works with our children."
She and others said they want to convince the board to keep schools within easy geographic reach for black families.
They'd also like to see the district spend more on cultural programming for black students and on kids who are struggling the most.
The agreement, though, doesn't involve any money. The district is still working to close a $13 million budget gap for next year. The board is also planning a $60 million referendum on this fall's ballot, thought to be a political gamble in a high turnout election like a presidential race.
The schools literally can't afford to be at odds with black parents this year.
But according to school board member Chris Stewart, the biggest difference in Minneapolis schools can't be bought anyway. He said that's getting parents more involved.
"We've got 'em at the table. They're interested and they want to give us feedback and they want to help us," he said. "That's what we need. That's what's been missing. You know, here's a little statistic for you. If we can get African-American kids to read half an hour a night at home, we could close the achievement gap with great ease."
Others suggested that kids need better health care, better nutrition and more emphasis on getting black preschoolers ready for kindergarten.
School board member Pam Costain said in return, the district will be more ready to listen.
"I am encouraging the district to embark on this. To experiment. To power share," she said.
Costain was among those who voted in favor of an agreement.
"At the same time, I am going to ask members of the community to work with our staff who are professionals in the field who have a depth of experience and a lot of the same commitments," she said. "What's been wonderful about this is that we're trying to overcome the us and them."
The district and black parents plan to meet as many as half-a-dozen times this summer to work out a written agreement. They hope to sign it this fall.
- Morning Edition, 06/11/2008, 7:20 a.m.