Mission: Impossible

A radically retooled Minneapolis School Board tries to stop the bleeding and start over

The scene is multi-culti Lake Wobegon. There are several African girls wearing headscarves, a number of Asian students, and half a dozen blond heads. Forty percent of Pratt's students are Somali and half are low-income; most live nearby in a subsidized housing complex. The rest of the neighborhood is populated by middle- and upper-income university professors and visiting foreign scholars who are quick to donate time and money to the school. The kids routinely achieve some of the highest test scores in the city—second only to Lake Harriet last year.

As Stewart launches into a dramatic reading of The Hungry Caterpillar, it's clear most of the kids know the story by heart. He makes a second pass though the book, asking whether the various foods the caterpillar gorged on are healthy. The kids vote yes or no in sign language, stalling only when Stewart gets to the pickle.

Christine Solberg has been teaching for 32 years, which explains her perfect command of the classroom. And goes a long way toward explaining the school's stellar academic record. Pratt's least experienced teacher has 14 years seniority. "They'll never be pushed out of here," one of the dads sighs contentedly.

In the coming weeks, the MPS board will consider a number of tough topics. The debate over school closings is guaranteed to be emotional and divisive, especially if Stewart is right that budget realities mean the board needs to look at cutting even popular and successful programs. (At press time, a preliminary discussion about facilities was scheduled to take place at the board's regular meeting on February 20, a list of facilities and programs staff recommend closing was to be released March 6, and the board was tentatively committed to making a decision March 13.)

But the battle over closings is likely to pale in comparison to the issues expected to be on the table in the upcoming contract negotiations between the district and the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers.

The thorniest is the way teachers are placed in schools. Currently, when there's an opening, teachers bid for it and the applicant with the most seniority wins. Consequently, the teachers with the most experience tend to be clustered in the most desirable schools, which also happen to be the programs with the most children from middle- and upper-income families and the fewest children with Individual Education Plans—code for special ed.

High teacher turnover and burnout rates have long frustrated African American families, but it's become particularly acute in the last five years, as cuts in state funding have meant massive layoffs. The cuts have reached so deep into the union's seniority list that most MPS teachers either have 10 or more years of experience, or virtually none.

New teachers on probationary status tend to land in a handful of schools, some of which have had more than 200 percent turnover in the last three years. "When each new round of layoffs comes, those probationary teachers who've made it through a year with those high-poverty kids are gone," laments Carla Bates, an education activist with three kids in MPS.

She points to district statistics that show that from 2000 to 2003, five of the district's elementary schools had turnover of more than 200 percent: Jordan Park's core staff turned over by 443 percent during that time; Lincoln Elementary's by 330 percent; Green Central Park, 333; Cityview, 258; and Anderson Open, 222. All are large schools with high numbers of English-language learners (accounting for half of enrollment at Green, Jordan Park, and Anderson), large contingents of special ed students, and, most telling, student bodies filled with kids living in poverty.

Stewart and the other board members interviewed for this article say the district can't make headway on the achievement gap between minorities and white students, the political third rail running under so many of the crises of the last few years, without a major change. Principals must be able to interview teacher candidates and select the best person for their particular team, they say.

New board Chair Pam Costain lists several reasons. A mix of experienced senior teachers and younger, more energetic ones best serves a school. And in Minneapolis, the layoffs of the last six years have had a disproportionate effect on teachers of color, many of whom lacked the seniority to survive. She estimates minorities make up just 10 percent of MPS's teaching staff. Plus, interview-and-select, as a principal's ability to hire for each job is dubbed in education jargon, is one reason St. Paul's schools are in much better shape than Minneapolis's despite their similar population, she says.

Last May, the teachers' union voted out 22-year president Louise Sundin, a so-called progressive unionist who had managed to sell members on a number of traditionally taboo changes, including test forays into merit pay. She was defeated by Robert Panning-Miller, a high school social studies teacher and union traditionalist. He calls interview-and-select a red herring.

"What people would like to have—and I understand, I'm a parent—it would be nice to look at all the kindergarten teachers in the city and say, 'I want that one for my kid.' And that's not realistic," he says. "We want to say all teachers in Minneapolis are qualified. Some have special skills, like Montessori or language skills. But if I have a kindergarten class at Barton and a kindergarten class at Harry Davis, anyone with a license in Minneapolis should be able to teach that class.

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