Color Bind

Principal Gail Hanka says Evergreen Park Elementary's diversity proves desegregation is no longer simply black and white
Raoul Benavides

Walking down the halls of Evergreen Park Elementary School with Gail Hanka, a calibrated sense of dignity and hope fills the air. The principal of the school, Hanka quietly describes a new laptop program that she's planning for all the third graders. She looks in on a classroom filled with 26 fifth graders, each using powder blue iMac computers to create a presentation about the scientific wonders of vitamin C. She gestures toward a wall lined with replicas of Georgia O'Keefe paintings created in an art class.

But mostly Hanka talks about the diversity of Evergreen Park, a 610-student school in the southern tip of the mammoth Anoka-Hennepin school district. She rattles off the names of the languages spoken at Evergreen--Hmong, Laotian, Filipino, Russian, the West African language Ibo, and at least 15 more. Hanka, a petite, auburn-haired white woman in a tweed jacket and skirt, high-fives a diminutive black boy, then declares that the cafeteria is the best place to understand the makeup of Evergreen Park.

On her way to the lunchroom, she points out a display of Dr. Seuss quotes printed on construction paper and taped to the wall. "On Diversity" is the heading of the one she says is her favorite: "We see them come, we see them go. Some are fast, some are slow. Some are high, some are low. None of them is like another, don't ask us why, go ask your mother."

It is true that Evergreen Park Elementary illustrates the rapid changes that Brooklyn Center has experienced in recent years, changes that dispel the notion that the Twin Cities' suburbs are lily-white, and that segregation issues only affect schools in Minneapolis or St. Paul. Forty-eight percent of Evergreen's pupils are "protected students," meaning that they are African or black Americans, Asian or Pacific Americans, Latinos or American Indian--in short, anyone who isn't purely Caucasian. The school serves an equally multiethnic neighborhood on the residential fringes of Brooklyn Center.

In contrast, a mere nine percent of students in the Anoka-Hennepin district as a whole are minorities. Under a state rule implemented in July of 1999, that means district administrators must find a way to move some of the minority students in Evergreen Park to other schools or Anoka-Hennepin may lose a portion of its state funding. Never mind that the intent of the state policy was to coax mostly white schools into welcoming more kids of color.

"Our plan had to include moving the diversity out of the school," Hanka complains. One option is to move Evergreen's English Learning Language programs--"we don't say English as a Second Language, because many of these kids are learning their third or fourth language"--to another school within the district, which would shift some 140 students. But Hanka doubts that would make much difference in the overall makeup of her kindergarten through fifth-grade school. "This is what this community looks like now," she insists. "These are not just black-and-white issues... But maybe if we can show the state that our kids are doing well, the numbers won't matter."

Last fall, the district launched a plan to create four new magnet schools and a new all-day kindergarten, something officials hope will appeal to some of the minority parents reluctant to move their kids out of Evergreen Park. The school is also slated to develop computer-skills programs that should attract more white students. Anoka-Hennepin plans to pay for the new programs using nearly $1 million per year in state-funded "incentives." More than $250,000 of that money goes to Evergreen Park.

In 1999, Minnesota did away with a 25-year-old law that required school districts to meet mandatory guidelines regarding racial balance. In its place, education officials and legislators came up with a controversial new desegregation policy that is considered voluntary: Most schools won't be ordered to integrate, but rather given financial incentives to diversify. Also, rather than forcing parents to send their kids to a particular school based on a formula, districts are supposed to create programs that attract a balanced mix of pupils.

The intent of the rule, according to Lyonel Norris, director of the Minnesota Department of Children, Families and Learning's Office of Equity, is to make sure all students go to multiethnic schools. "Our concern is really simple, and that is a desire to have kids be around kids who don't look like them," he continues. "Evergreen is a wonderfully integrated school, but kids in the rest of the district need to get a taste of what that looks like. How about if you bring some of these [other] kids in contact with these kids at Evergreen?"

Evergreen Park has been "racially identifiable"--that is, disproportionately populated by minorities--for five years. But instead of busing kids to other buildings to try to dilute the school's minority population, the district chose to spend its money bolstering Evergreen's staff to make sure students were receiving crucial services, such as English-language instruction. But when the new rule came into effect, Hanka and district administrators began to wonder whether they were in danger of losing funding.

That would happen if state education officials concluded that not only had Evergreen Park failed to decrease its minority population, but that officials hadn't even really tried. In that case, representatives of Children, Families and Learning would recommend that the state Legislature cut the portion of the district's funding that's supposed to finance the cost of integration.

Hanka, for one, doesn't think the state would have more luck convincing minority students to move than the district has had. She argues that because the Anoka-Hennepin district is so large--it enrolls more than 40,000 students--and covers so much ground, Evergreen can't help but be an anomaly. "We look different from schools in Anoka, Ramsey, and Andover because we are so far away from them," she explains. "This is what it looks like in Brooklyn Center... We look normal compared to the schools geographically around us."

Norris concedes that it's hard to integrate schools that serve segregated communities. "I can sympathize that maybe we are simplifying something that is extremely complicated," he says. "We are not the world that was portrayed in Fargo. We don't know if this is going to work, but we hope."

Carlos Mariani, a state DFL representative from St. Paul and director of the nonprofit Minnesota Minority Education Partnership, worries that the voluntary desegregation rule, no matter how well-intentioned, is a "sloppy law." He says that people tend to blame race for the failings of a school that is actually crippled by poverty. The goal has too often simply been to get minority students into white schools, instead of studying what makes schools like Evergreen succeed. "I wonder if there is an awkward application of certain laws," he says. "The question is, are they having education success or not?"

And after working for 26 years in public education, that's the bottom line for Hanka as well. While the principal is reluctant to have Evergreen judged only on test scores, she points out that the school's numbers are in line with statewide averages. Indeed, because test scores are good, she notes, state officials have never seen fit to visit Evergreen. Mostly, Hanka's willingness to declare Evergreen a success comes from her day-to-day dealings with students and parents in her four years at the school. Families, she notes, like Evergreen.

Helen Marie Lewis moved to Brooklyn Center two years ago, drawn by the diversity of the integrated neighborhoods near Evergreen Park. Lewis, who had lived in southeast Minneapolis for 20 years, had been searching for a new home for herself and her granddaughter, a third grader. After meeting with Hanka, and learning about the school, Lewis, who is African American, says she immediately felt at home and can't imagine moving her granddaughter to another school. "Evergreen is a school that represents its community, and that's as it should be," she says. "[The diversity] to me is not a problem. That's an advantage."

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