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.

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.

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.

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."

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