Mission: Impossible

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

"Is there a disparity between schools in terms of experience? Yes," he concedes. "The question is, why is that happening? People think teachers don't want to teach in those tough schools. I think you have to prove that. I'd argue that a bigger factor are administrators who are either inept or unfair."

Before being elected MFT president, Panning-Miller taught at South High, a diverse school with three academic tracks. He taught in the school's "open" program, which attracted college-bound achievers. Neighborhood kids, who tended to be poor minorities, were spread across a general liberal arts track and a "comprehensive" program. Teachers were often reluctant to bid into South, he says, because those with the least seniority were relegated to teaching in the lower tracks.

"In some ways you're saying, why don't we have more martyrs?" says Panning-Miller. "Why don't we set up a system where we don't need martyrs? Why don't we set up a system that's less segregated? Why don't we eliminate classes with 60 of their kids on individual education plans?"

Kris Drake

According to the state Department of Education, just 5 percent of Pratt's 90-child student body has an IEP: No matter how you do the math, that means no more than two high-needs pupils spread among four seasoned teachers.

Contrast that with W. Harry Davis Academy, a world away on Minneapolis's north side and struggling with high teacher turnover. It has 475 students, which is 100 more than last year; 16 percent have IEPs and 96 percent come from low-income households. The only groups of students deemed proficient on state tests are the school's Latinos and its English-language learners.

Superintendent Bill Green has said he would like to create incentives for teachers who take jobs at struggling schools. But with an average Minneapolis teacher's salary at $58,000, it's hard to imagine what kind of incentive would induce a teacher to give up the sunny, tranquil classrooms at Pratt.

TWENTY YEARS AGO, AT THE AGE of 19, Stewart set out to make his fortune in California. It was supposed to be the land of opportunity, but even after four interviews with McDonald's he couldn't land a job. He'd even ditched his New Orleans drawl—"I was acutely aware how much smarter I got when I lost my accent." But after a few months Stewart was sleeping in a park.

He got on a bus headed east. Everywhere the bus stopped Stewart would get off, find a newspaper, and look at the want ads to see what the job market was like. "Salt Lake City, Omaha, Des Moines"—he shivers at the last—"the economy had tanked."

He got off the bus in Minneapolis. The next day he had two jobs, one in the young men's department of the Donaldson's at Southdale, and another across the hall in a nut shop. He was thrilled, but even before he got out of the mall he realized he'd never be able to put together first and last month's rent.

He was still pondering this when he met a girl whose mother rented rooms in her house in St. Louis Park. She called home, and her mom said Stewart could stay if he promised to hand over $60 from his first paycheck and another $60 every week thereafter.

To Stewart, this particular yarn is about social capital. To get to the moral, fast-forward 13 years. Stewart was working for a staffing company, one that wasn't particularly interested in the kind of temp workers who couldn't get permanent jobs on their own.

"We didn't even want 'those people' in the lobby," he says. "But [the company] did like the commission it got when I placed someone on a job." His bosses dubbed his caseload "the huddled masses," but otherwise they let him be.

One day, someone from a social service agency appeared in the office, wanting to see the guy who could place anyone. She sent him a test case, and when Stewart found the person a job, the woman called him and said she was moving out of town. Did Stewart want her job?

"It was one of the few times in life when God spoke to me. I really believe that," he says. "From that moment on, I was happy. In fact, I was self-righteous."

In his new post, Stewart revisited the subject of social capital daily as he helped welfare recipients find work. But he always felt like he was years too late. After five years, he went to work for the state Department of Employment and Economic Development, where his job now is to work with Minneapolis schools and colleges to make sure they provide the training the state's businesses want future workers to have. Again, he found himself feeling that whatever he might accomplish, it was coming years too late in the lives of his clients.

It had to start in school, he reckoned. But he couldn't get the district's attention to do anything about it, partly because of the administrative staff's notoriously insular culture and partly because the school board and its superintendent were in the process of melting down. Thandiwe Peebles's dramatic flameout in January 2006 was followed by the news that four of the school board's seven members would not seek re-election. Stewart immediately grasped the importance of the moment.

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