Two questions for school board candidates

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October 27, 2008
By: Dylan Thomas
Dylan Thomas

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This school board election comes at a critical time for Minneapolis Public Schools.

The district faces significant and persistent challenges. It must raise student achievement across the board, reduce inequalities tied to race and income and reverse a decline in enrollment.

Last year, the current school board approved a five-year strategic plan meant to address these and other challenges. The goal of the plan was summed-up in one phrase: “Every child college ready.”

The strategic plan was developed with the help of consultants and the input of district staff and families. Administrators, principals and teachers will carry out the plan.

Still, the current board approved the strategic plan and will have the plan as its legacy.

So far, race and income are still closely tied to student achievement. Last school year, the district missed self-imposed achievement targets in kindergarten readiness, 3rd grade reading proficiency and 8th grade math proficiency.

But it is still early. Supporters argue that real results will take time to materialize.

This fall, the decline in enrollment slowed significantly. Many schools welcomed more students than expected, and high schools beat predicted enrollment by large margins.

Could it be a sign that the strategic plan has renewed faith in the district?

Only time will tell. But district officials also were eager to point out that graduation rates increased again last year, and were up 20 percent over the past four years.

With all of that in mind, the Southwest Journal asked the remaining six candidates for the Minneapolis school board two questions. Responses were limited to 200 words and edited for grammar and punctuation.

What do you see as the greatest challenge/challenges currently faced by Minneapolis Public Schools? What makes you the best candidate to address that challenge?

Carla Bates (DFL endorsed): The greatest challenge facing Minneapolis Public Schools is to offer quality schools equitably across the city. MPS has some of the best schools in the state. Yet, we must do better addressing the learning needs of low-income students of color, students who are learning English, and special education students.

To serve all of our schools and all of our students, the board must work harder and smarter to improve the central bureaucracy. Too many times, MPS has failed to provide equitable programming across schools. Lack of accountability at the central office has led to this uneven programming, uneven student performance, and frustrated parents. Although the district is showing signs of life, we have a long way to go to achieve transparent budgeting, community-based planning, and reliable data reporting.

As a parent of three children in MPS, I have experienced some of the highs and lows of the district. Other parent and community activists encouraged me to run because of my understanding of the big picture regarding education policy and funding. My Ph.D. in American Studies and my decade as an IT administrator at the U of M make me a knowledgeable candidate who knows how to make things happen in large educational institutions.

Jill Davis (DFL endorsed): The greatest challenges Minneapolis Public Schools face are: One, obtaining sufficient financial and human resources to support a quality public education system; and, two, rebuilding trust and credibility with parents and taxpayers. To rebuild trust and credibility, our district must: One, effectively manage funds and resources; and, two, address disparities of educational and academic enrichment opportunities that exist between our schools and for our children.

In order to close the achievement gap, have manageable class sizes and stabilize enrollment, every Minneapolis Public School must have sustainable, quality educational and academic enrichment opportunities, and every Minneapolis Child must have access to those opportunities.

As a life-long Minneapolis resident, a graduate of Minneapolis Edison and a parent of a Minneapolis Public School student, I am committed to our schools being successful. I have 25 years of professional experience in the areas of early childhood, social services and mental health. I’ve been a leader and an activist in my neighborhood and in Minneapolis Public Schools. I have built coalitions of support for children.

My experience, knowledge, and commitment to children are qualities that make me uniquely qualified for being a school board member that will address our district’s challenges.

Sharon Henry-Blythe (Incumbent)
: The greatest challenges facing MPS are: improving academic outcomes of our students, with special emphasis on low-income students and students of color; maintaining our commitment to the goals and mandates of the MPS Strategic Plan; and improving the financial outlook for the district into the next three to five years.

In order to affect real change within our district, the next board of directors must be prepared to stay focused on the direction of the district. We have a strong, aggressive strategic plan that addresses all areas of our district and establishes standards of accountability.

We cannot slip back, we cannot act parochial in our decision-making and we must stay focused on our future and ensure a high-quality education for all students in our city. Maintaining continuity and leadership at the board level is critically important to the immediate future of our district.

I am the longest serving board member. I have weathered very difficult times as a board member and I remain committed to our families, students, teachers and city. I will provide continuity and leadership based on my seven years of experience.

Lydia Lee (Incumbent, DFL endorsed): It is of the utmost importance that we have capable leaders at all levels who inspire teachers and staff, who demonstrate an understanding good instruction, who affirm good work and who welcome and value input from stakeholders.

Our leadership is accountable for results and, therefore, must be aware of what is happening under their watch. A great leader knows how to deliver constructive criticism to guide each employee toward our common goals. We have such leaders in the Minneapolis Public Schools, but we also have some whose leadership styles have demoralized many of our teachers and staff.

As a teacher in the school district, I have experienced how different leadership styles affect the performance of staff and, in turn, affect the achievement outcomes of our students. As a school board member, I insist that those in leadership roles be closely monitored and routinely assessed for effectiveness. A fair evaluation process must be diligently implemented in order to assure the public that we have qualified, capable administrators guiding the district toward achieving the goals of our Strategic Plan. As we face the challenge of annual budget deficits, we must let go of those who are falling short of expectations.

Doug Mann
: The school board has created a huge racial learning gap over the years, in part by creating a revolving door for new teachers who are replaced with more new teachers before they complete their three-year probationary period. They are fired in the spring, have no recall rights, and are mostly assigned to schools where students of color are over-represented.

To get low teacher turnover rates in all schools the board must stop firing these teachers every spring. When some teaching jobs must be cut, the board should layoff no more teachers than is absolutely necessary for a planned workforce reduction.

The district must also eliminate watered-down curriculum tracks. As early as kindergarten, students are divided into groups for reading instruction, with a college-bound curriculum reserved for a minority.

The Education Trust recommends the Arts for Academic Achievement program as a tool to eliminate watered-down curriculum tracks. It has been tested and proven to boost achievement in our schools but not used to its full potential.

The district’s strategic plan does not call for low teacher turnover rates or the elimination of watered-down curriculum tracks, but includes corporate-style, No Child Left Behind reforms.

Kari Reed (GOP endorsed): I feel the greatest challenge facing the Minneapolis Public Schools is that they are failing to educate the children. I will push for more quality education through charter schools, community schools, parent-run schools, ethnic schools or whatever schools.

Our education system needs a change of philosophy. We need to embrace the principles of freedom and shed the government bureaucracy. I want children to learn the basics and to learn them well!

Leave the politics out of the classroom. As diversity expands in our population, we need to match it with more freedom. I dream of the day when there is no more assembly line education and when teachers are able to free run their classrooms in a manner they wish.

I am deeply concerned for the education of all the children in Minneapolis. When I meet teenagers in my neighborhood that read worse than my 7 year old, yet can beat me in a debate about recycling, I’m concerned about what’s being taught in the public schools. When I hear a boy tell me he has 49 children in his fifth grade class it’s time for me to get involved!

I am a mother of 5 children, a teacher and a concerned tax-paying citizen.