School's Out

It's elementary: Money talks

Yet five years later most of the open areas have seen little change. Kids still must either commute to a good school, or settle for one a few blocks away that has plenty of open chairs but low test scores. And most of the "open" neighborhoods are still poor and segregated.

Except for Kingfield. The people living there aren't poor anymore and they're making a lot of noise. During the last census in 1990, a third of all residents were living on social security and other benefits, their children long since grown. Family income averaged $37,000 a year earned at mostly service, clerical, and manufacturing jobs. Things look quite different now. Agents at several Minneapolis real estate companies say housing prices in Kingfield have nearly doubled since 1995. Lots of new families with preschool-age children have moved in, and the curbs along residential streets are lined with SUVs.

Elizabeth Hinz, MPS director of policy and planning, concedes that the well-heeled are good at bending officials' ears. "I'm sure the fact that the neighborhood has changed a lot in the last few years has implications for how this is going," she says. "They have a lot of people there now who are very skilled at advocating, gathering information, and communicating well. Frankly, the neighborhood is really aware, and not every neighborhood is like that." Parents' activism may well win them concessions families in other neighborhoods haven't been able to achieve.

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

But she balks at the suggestion that many poor neighborhoods didn't get community schools from the start precisely because they lacked political clout. "No one planned it this way," she says. "We tried to divide districts according to existing neighborhood boundaries while keeping in mind the limits of class size. Open districts had too many kids living in them for the number of schools in the area so we couldn't guarantee each student a seat. We offered them choice instead."

Streitz doesn't buy that. "The school board tried to tell us that we were lucky to be living in an open area because we had more schools to choose from since we didn't have a guaranteed one," says Streitz. "We laughed them out of the room and said, 'Give us a break. That's ridiculous.'" If there are so many kids in the area, Kingfield and East Harriet residents argue, why isn't a new school being built for them? Hinz's answer is that there aren't enough children in the area to warrant one: "The numbers simply don't support it." (The two neighborhoods are home to 512 school-age kids, according to 1999 MPS data.)

This answer doesn't make sense, either, note Streitz and his neighbors. If there were too many kids for a community school five years ago, how can there be too few today if the neighborhoods have grown? Hinz can't say. Neither can Carol Johnson, superintendent of Minneapolis Public Schools. "I really don't know about that," Johnson says. "That was before my time, when Peter Hutchinson was the superintendent."

It's not that the district won't build new schools, Hinz says, noting that MPS has had its hands full elsewhere. "It was obvious to us that the Whittier neighborhood in south Minneapolis and most of north Minneapolis had far too few schools for all the students there," she says. "So over the last couple of years we built a new school in Whittier and we've built four schools over North." The last, to be built in the Hawthorne neighborhood, will open in fall of 2001.

That's great, says Streitz, "but it still doesn't change the fact that my neighborhood needs a school." And so in recent weeks, a group of area residents has begun lobbying the district in earnest. On July 21, more than 40 area residents gathered in the sweltering auditorium at Martin Luther King Park for a two-hour meeting with Hinz, Johnson, and other MPS honchos.

Sweat-drenched mothers and fathers took turns comforting fussy babies and shushing fidgety toddlers as district planners struggled to be heard over the sounds of older kids whomping each other over the head with foam light sabers and scraping Matchbox cars along the rock walls in the back of the room. Streitz and other parents tried to pin Hinz and Johnson down on just what could be done to help parents send their kids to a good school close to home--soon.

Hinz passed out a list of ideas ranging from changing district boundaries so that students who live in Kingfield and East Harriet could be assigned to other community schools (including Lyndale) to turning Barton into the area's community school, instead of a citywide magnet.

Streitz asked about the original vision for the return to community schools, namely that the city would provide enough affordable housing throughout Minneapolis that the gaps would disappear. At the meeting, Johnson dodged the question. In a later interview, however, she acknowledged that Kingfield won't be the last neighborhood to gentrify, organize, and push for better schools. But that struggle, she says, is much larger than the school system. "Back when the mayor supported the move to community schools, she also said that the city would work on the issues of affordable housing," she said. "They've been trying to work on that but we still have a shortage, and until we fix that, schools will reflect the communities they're in and some are going to be better off than others."

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