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.

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

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.

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.

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.

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."

In the end, nothing was resolved; another meeting would be held later this month, but no date has yet been set. "This is such a politically charged issue," says Streitz. "I just don't get it; if community schools are supposed to be so good for kids and so good for neighborhoods, why doesn't every neighborhood have one? Why didn't they just do that in the first place? If every area had a good school, this wouldn't be happening now."

As much as anyone, Streitz says, he believes in the American dream of a quality education for all. But his kids shouldn't be put on a bus to do the work he sees as the district's and city's responsibility. So he plans to keep right on pushing, aware that people like him--white, educated, affluent, and persistent--tend to get what they want.

"Most people end up getting deep-sixed in this kind of highly political process, but that's not going to happen this time. They're listening to us because we are organized. And that's because we have the skills, money, and time to take time off from work if we have to and do this. Poor people can't afford to do that like we can."

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