Off Beat

Off Beat for Five-Year-Olds, Part 1

LAST WEEK THE Minneapolis Public Schools announced a new plan superintendents say will "guarantee" school choice to certain families living in areas that don't contain a designated "community" school.

The move represents school officials' first attempt to accommodate any of the roughly 30 percent of Minneapolis families who were left out when the school system did away with districtwide busing back in 1995, in favor of a return to community schools. A story this past summer by City Pages staff writer Meleah Maynard described the frustrations of such families who live in the Kingfield and East Harriet neighborhoods of south Minneapolis (see "School's Out," August 9).

In preparation for the 2001-02 academic year, parents of kindergarten-age kids who live in areas that have no designated community school can now fill out a "choice card" designating three schools in order of preference, as opposed to the two schools that were previously allowed. The restrictions are 1) that the new plan is open only to kindergarteners, 2) that only one of the choices may be a so-called magnet school, and 3) that the other two choices must be located in the household's "designated attendance area." The district pledges to honor one of the choices. (As before, parents who live in areas containing a community school are limited to two choices, magnet or otherwise; if those schools are full, a child gets a spot in the neighborhood's community school.)

"We're perceiving this as a victory," says Norah Shapiro, an East Harriet resident and the mother of a preschooler. "There's no question that this is a direct response to our actions. We're really gratified that all of our work finally paid off and they're doing something. They used to just use vague language like, 'We'll work with you,' and now they're saying, 'We guarantee it.' That's much different."

Exactly how much different, of course, remains uncertain. For one thing, there's the fact that the plan does nothing to address the complaints of the thousands of families who are unsatisfied with their limited choices but whose children are beyond kindergarten. Further, the district has yet to clarify some key points.

For example, Shapiro and her kindergarten-ready neighbors are likely to list the two "best" community schools in their attendance area. How will the district accommodate them all without violating mandated class-size restrictions?

"We said we would guarantee them a school, so we have to do it. We have to find a way for it to work," responds Bob McCauley, superintendent of the Southwest Area, which includes Kingfield and East Harriet. "Kindergartens empty out every year, so we don't expect every class to be full at this point," he adds. McCauley also points to class-size projections that indicate there will be room.

"This is not a direct response just to Kingfield," McCauley continues. "Other parents in open areas have also been asking us to do something for some time now. We see this as a step toward giving them more choices." The superintendent says that in January the school board will begin looking into ways to eliminate open districts entirely.

Off Beat for Five-Year-Olds, Part 2

SPEAKING OF EDUCATION, a certain very small but very intimate source brought Off Beat a copy of the current edition of the "Creative Play Newsletter," published by the Robbinsdale Area Schools. We were particularly enthralled by the page of suggested "Sensory Activities," including a recipe for Pudding Finger Paint and instructions for making your own Magic Touching Bag. Just the thing to liven up CP staff meetings! But what really caught our eye was this tip for Frosty Frolics: "When the temperature is about 25 degrees below zero, have a few minutes of frosty family fun. Try blowing bubbles outdoors.... If the weather is cold enough, the bubbles will freeze almost instantly. If they land on the ground they will not break, but roll like a tiny beach ball. Instead of popping, the bubble will crack like an egg." If you send Off Beat a polite e-mail, we'll send you back the instructions for the Pudding Finger Paint and the Magic Touching Bag. If you opt for the Frosty Frolics, wear a hat.