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In a sea of school choice, a city's schools fight back

But can Minneapolis improve enough to keep more students from jumping ship?

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In fact, even without the choices from charter, private, and suburban schools, families entering the district's schools have a lot of options. In November, parents who attend a large district fair get an oversize guide detailing the system of magnet and neighborhood schools.

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Downtown, at Emerson Elementary School - the only magnet school in the city that provides free transportation from anywhere in Minneapolis - the district's existing dual-language immersion program is thriving, filled to capacity every year.

A walk through its classes and halls showcases Minneapolis schools at their best - and is an indicator of the kind of innovation that the choice system can create. In a second-grade science classroom, conducted in Spanish, kids are engrossed in an air-pressure experiment. Later, when one student asks the others a series of regular warm-up questions: "Cual es la fecha? Cual es la temperatura?" - her classmates give her their full attention.

Almost all Emerson parents have been on a tour of the school before they select it, and they have clear reasons for choosing the program: There are parents who have lived abroad, adoptive parents whose children are from Latin America, Hispanic parents who feel comfortable at a school where they can actually talk to the teachers.

The myriad other options keep Emerson even more competitive. "If some parents live in a neighborhood where kids could go to a community school, and every kindergartner there gets all-day kindergarten, then we have to offer that, too," says Karen Pederson, principal of Emerson, citing just one program she's considering adding to the school.

Despite the variety and innovation evident in some district schools, most agree that the quality in many community schools - particularly in the poorer African-American neighborhoods to the north - drops considerably.

At one point, the district was mostly magnet schools, available to everyone. In 1993, parental demand led to a partial return to neighborhood schools - a shift popular with parents who don't want their kids bused long distances, but also one that's resegregated much of the district.

And the achievement gap for minority students is particularly high in the district. Last year, 70 percent of white third- and fifth-graders tested at or above the reading standard on the Minnesota Comprehensive Assessment Test, while just 23 percent of African-Americans did. In math, the gap was 81 percent to 36 percent.

Given that performance, say experts, it's hardly surprising that many African-American families are looking elsewhere. On average, Minneapolis charter schools have higher percentages of low-income students, students of color, and non-English speakers than do the public schools, yet most have shown more improvement in either reading or math than the city district has, says Mr. Nathan. "That shows me that families are making a very rational decision," he says.

Nathan cites an outstanding public-school program that last year was popular with Somali immigrants. The principal, recognizing the growing population, hired Somalis and went to Africa himself. This year, however, the district refused to spend $10,000 to bus Somali students from the city's north side. So between 35 and 40 families moved their kids to a charter school with a similar program.

"Those parents were very willing to have their kids in a district school," Nathan says. "But the district hasn't always done a good job of listening to people."