School's Out

It's elementary: Money talks

Tom Streitz, father of twin three-year-old boys, thought he and his wife had a couple more years to relax before having to think about what kindergarten their sons would go to. But then a neighbor called, upset that she had been turned down for her first two school choices. She was considering moving out of the area, southwest Minneapolis's Kingfield neighborhood, to ensure that her child could go to a good school.

The elementary school down the street, Barton Open, is Minneapolis's most popular magnet, widely touted as having the best teachers and resources. Parents from all over the city compete to get their child into Barton, and there's a lengthy waiting list to prove it. Another magnet, Ramsey, is just a few miles south. But its lottery is also very competitive. Meanwhile, the default choice for neighborhood kids who didn't win the magnet-school lottery and couldn't get space in either of the community schools in nearby "attendance areas," as school officials call them, is Lyndale Community. Most of its students are poor, many don't speak English fluently, and test scores are low. Where Barton has art residencies and inventor's fairs, Lyndale offers conflict resolution and student support groups.

Even so, at first Streitz thought his neighbor was overreacting. Surely there are other schools in the area, even if they were slightly less prestigious? An attorney with the Legal Aid Society of Minneapolis, Streitz spends his days advocating for the poor, specifically on the issue of affordable housing. A good portion of his day is spent representing the interests of people displaced in recent years as acres of public housing on the city's near north side have been torn down. He works with people who would be overjoyed to settle for a "good enough" school.

Father knows best: Tom Streitz wants to keep his kids off the bus
Diana Watters
Father knows best: Tom Streitz wants to keep his kids off the bus

If he were true to his principles, he'd send his kids to Lyndale and get involved in trying to improve that school, Streitz acknowledges. "I know it sounds bad to say that we're pushing to get our kids into Barton and not Lyndale," he admits. "But there's nothing that makes people more emotional than this issue because it's their kid. I've got to protect my kids at any cost and even though some people might call me a fascist for doing it, I'm going to fight to get them into the best school I possibly can."

Even though Streitz has long understood this disparity, until recently he didn't understand why parents got so upset about choosing a kindergarten. It didn't seem to him like the right time to be worrying about academic achievement. But as Streitz listened to his neighbor and other young parents who lived nearby, he began to understand their panic. And suddenly the two years he thought he had left didn't seem like much time at all.

Where Streitz's kids attend kindergarten may, it turns out, determine where they spend the rest of their school years. "[Kids] get tracked into middle school and high school from [kindergarten]," he explains. "Specific schools go with each kindergarten so once you pick one, that's the path your child's going to be on unless you move to a different neighborhood or out of state." Of course, he adds, unhappy parents can apply to another Minneapolis school, but most are already filled by children who were automatically tracked there.

Streitz and his neighbors have spent the last six months lobbying Minneapolis Public Schools to either build a community school for Kingfield and East Harriet--which together stretch between 38th and 46th streets, and King's Highway and I-35W--or come up with some other way to guarantee neighborhood kids space in a nearby school. In phone calls, letters, and e-mails, parents (in these neighborhoods mostly young white professionals in their late 20s and 30s) have repeatedly told school officials that their neighborhoods feel like home until their children hit kindergarten. At that point, kids get bussed to 20 different schools, splitting everyone, including the parents, in a million different directions.

The debate is hardly new. Parents have been clamoring for community schools ever since racial integration first propelled kids onto buses. Most parents want their kids to go to diverse schools, but they don't want them to endure long bus rides to buildings where they don't see their neighborhood playmates. So in 1995 Mayor Sharon Sayles Belton opined that busing had torn apart communities. She called for a return to community schools. This, she explained, would help rebuild lost bonds as parents got to know each other while being involved in the education and lives of their children.

A black woman with two children in public schools, Sayles Belton could not be easily dismissed by those who had, up until that point, widely criticized the move as a step back toward school segregation. Minneapolis would ensure that its neighborhoods--and thus their schools--were integrated. Affordable housing, she promised, would be sprinkled throughout the city, and every community would have a school of its own.

In 1996, when MPS officials finished divvying up schools along neighborhood lines, 11 areas--mostly on the city's north side, in run-down pockets of south Minneapolis, and on the University of Minnesota's West Bank--were left without one. All of those "open" areas, with the exception of East Harriet, were populated by low-income families, many of them minorities or immigrants. Residents were assured that area schools would still be coming their way.

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