In a sea of school choice, a city's schools fight back
But can Minneapolis improve enough to keep more students from jumping ship?
Kyle Samejima's decision - to send her three children to the local public school here - was an unusual one among her neighbors. But she liked the open-education philosophy of Windom magnet school, liked that it was just a couple of blocks away, liked the diversity.Skip to next paragraph
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Now she's helping to spearhead an effort to make Windom even more distinctive, turning it into a dual immersion Spanish school that her youngest child - a kindergartner already bilingual in Japanese - will begin next year. "You can put a label on a school, and if you look at Windom's test scores, they don't look so great," says Ms. Samejima. "But test scores don't always tell the whole story."
Many other Minneapolis parents, though, are looking at the test scores. And with an exceptionally high degree of school choice, they're increasingly choosing options outside the district.
Twelve years after America's first charter school opened in Minnesota, parents in Minneapolis face a daunting smorgasbord of options. In addition to private and parochial options, there are 17 charter schools (with seven more to open in the fall), open enrollment that allows students to hop districts, and a complex system of magnet and neighborhood public schools.
The result is an intriguing case study for communities across the country now considering school choice - an example of both the benefits and the risks of turning the system into a competitive environment.
While many urban districts struggle to retain white, middle-class families, Minneapolis is also losing low-income, minority ones, primarily to charter schools. It's led to an enrollment crisis for the district, which loses state money with each departing student, and now has 800 surplus classrooms. But many observers point out that this is exactly how choice is supposed to work: better options for individual students, and a competitive educational landscape that may, in the end, force all the schools to improve.
"It's good that families have lots of options, but the overall goal isn't to have lots of options. It's to have higher achievement," says Joe Nathan, director of the Center for School Change at the University of Minnesota's Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs. "Choice is a means to the end of better education, and what we're seeing is encouraging."
From the perspective of the Minneapolis Public Schools, the recent trends have been anything but encouraging. The district has lost 5,500 students over the past five years (nearly 14 percent of its total enrollment) and is projecting that another 3,000 will leave in the fall.
Most of those leaving are African-Americans heading to charter schools or to suburban public schools. (For low-income students, the district provides free transportation to suburban schools). More than 20 percent of Minneapolis kids chose not to attend district schools last year. For every student who leaves, the district loses thousands of dollars in state funds.
"The state's funding of public schools has been pretty stagnant over the last few years," says Cheri Reese, the district's director of public affairs. "Combine that with the declining enrollment, and we're in a perfect storm."
Still, Ms. Reese acknowledges that the alternatives are often a good thing for individual students. And within the district itself, rumblings of change - honest discussions about how to make parents want to send their children to a public school - can be heard.
The district has delayed the school closings and mergers its interim superintendent proposed this year, and is instead planning a series of community conversations to engage parents in the restructuring decisions. In an effort to get a jump-start on the tough achievement-gap issue - as well as bring families into the public schools early on - the district hopes to expand its pre-K and all-day kindergarten options. It's also exploring specialized programs: gender- and culture-specific schools, performing arts specialities, and dual-immersion language programs.