The quest to close the achievement gap in north Minneapolis

Communities rally for better education opportunities after years of obstacles

The quest to close the achievement gap in north Minneapolis
Ava Wichmann

A sore throat only half explains why Terry stayed home from school on a Thursday. Each week, the harassment he suffered at the hands of a whole family of school bullies grew worse. If yesterday's punch in the stomach was any clue, showing up today would surely invite hell. Terry no longer liked school.

According to Terry's mother, Debbie Howell, this is a kid who used to refuse to miss a day. In fact, only a year ago, a different school across the street from her north Minneapolis home was pulling her son toward an improbably bright future. A student at a zero-tolerance, packet-of-homework-a-night charter school, Terry leapt out of bed every morning at 5:30 a.m.

Events this summer put a stop to that. Given the high test scores reported by the two-year-old Minnesota School of Science, it shocked Howell when her son's school doors were slammed shut by the Minneapolis school district for failing to properly serve the children of north Minneapolis.

Malle Vue’s daughter, a former student at MSS
Courtesy of Concept Schools
Malle Vue’s daughter, a former student at MSS
Cityview parent protest
Courtesy of Concept Schools
Cityview parent protest

Perhaps she shouldn't have been so surprised. Terry has attended three North Side schools in four years, and MSS is the second to close abruptly. Terry's first school, Cityview — which was once located in the same building as MSS — also closed for failing to properly serve the children of north Minneapolis.

A 9-year-old black boy living on a struggling side of town, Terry is ripe for salvation by his neighborhood school. He's the subject of a fight for the future. The effort to close the historic achievement gap is a battle for the legacy of our public education system.

But as initiative after initiative and new school after new school cycle through north Minneapolis, it's become unclear how many more surprise gut punches await kids like Terry.

Says Howell, "I just don't want my son to get lost."

For 14 years, Cityview was at the pointy end of the Minneapolis district's numerous stabs at closing an embarrassing gap in test scores between low-income kids of color and middle-class white kids. But today the school sits empty.

With park space on two sides, two Baptist churches, a Buddhist temple, and a family resource center across the street, the building that once housed Cityview and MSS looks like the school that could turn it all around.

Moreover, it's located in a largely black, heavily low-income community in north Minneapolis, exactly the demographics that fall furthest into what's known as the achievement gap. According to statistics collected by the Minneapolis district, the average African American student in Minneapolis is half as likely as a white student to become proficient or advanced in reading and math and half as likely to graduate from high school.

The two schools that the building once housed were shuttered for different reasons, but it was nationwide obsession with school accountability that doomed each.

Rosilyn Carroll, a member of Minnesota School of Science's board, blames a kind of systemic entropy.

"When we really get to it, it isn't about educating students; it's about muck," she says. "It's like in the swamp and there's slime and muck, and as long as you can keep me in the slime and muck of education, then I can't get down to the business of educating."

In its last year, Cityview was a mess, living up more than ever to the bad reputation it had long held among people who'd never set foot in the school. Three principals cycled through. A teacher was caught having sex in the building during school hours.

The chaos was punctuated by the infamous spring 2011 tornado that ripped apart the homes of much of the student body.

In December of that year, the Minneapolis school board voted to close the K-8. With less than a quarter of students scoring proficient in state reading and math tests, Cityview had become a target in a nationwide effort to root out problem schools.

"You could tell when you walked in," says Liz Wielinski, the mother of a now 14-year-old son who attended Cityview's autism program. "The kids were bouncing off the walls."

For kids with autism, even a slight change in the day's schedule can lead to a meltdown. The impact of a new teacher — let alone a new school — is tremendous. The district attempted to mitigate the upheaval by allowing its seven special education classrooms to stay in the Cityview building as the rest of the school was phased out. Minnesota School of Science, which would move in the following year, signed a one-year agreement to "mainstream" the special education students, allowing them to spend part of their day in the charter school's general education classrooms.

To Wielinski, the damage was already done. "For my son to have the classroom teacher gone, the special ed teacher he'd had for three years pulled out, the school changed, the principal gone, half the teachers gone — he was a mess," she says. "It was like wasting a year."

Cityview had more students with disabilities than the average district school because of its citywide special education program, which aggregated kids from across Minneapolis whose needs were significant enough to merit separate classrooms.

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