Candidate forum puts focus on East African community

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September 24, 2012 // UPDATED 9:16 pm - January 1, 2013
By: Jeremy Zoss & Sarah McKenzie & Dylan Thomas
Jeremy Zoss & Sarah McKenzie & Dylan Thomas

 

The concerns of the local East African community were front-and-center during the first post-primary School Board candidate forum, held Sept. 6 at Brian Coyle Center in the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood.

The event hosted by the New Americans Political Action Committee, a group that advocates for Minnesota’s East African immigrants, was lightly attended, with only about 25 people watching the six candidates who will appear on the Election Day ballot, plus one write-in candidate invited to join in the discussion.

That write-in candidate was Eli Kaplan, a longtime district observer who also served more than two decades on the Citizens Budget Advisory Committee, who is challenging Doug Mann and incumbent Carla Bates for the one open citywide seat on the board. Also present were District 4 candidates Josh Reimnitz and Patty Wycoff, as well as Kim Ellison and Tracine Asberry, who are running unopposed in districts 2 and 6, respectively.

A question posed by moderators early in the evening asked about a crucial set of data the district does not yet have access to: student achievement broken-down by the language those students speak at home. That data, the moderators suggested, could assist the district in tracking the performance of specific immigrant communities.

None of the candidates disagreed that the district should more closely track how students whose families arrived here from Somalia or Mexico are faring, and Bates noted School Board members Hussein Samatar and Alberto Monserrate were leading the push to get language-specific data from the state, an effort both she and Ellison, the other incumbent on the November ballot, said they supported.

The debate returned often to the subject of English language learner, or ELL students. At one point, Reimnitz noted ELL students represent about one-fifth of the district, and said planning for their needs was one of the areas where the current School Board was not moving with enough urgency.

The candidates often found common ground during the forum, and most agreed the district should step-up efforts to recruit bilingual and multilingual teachers, possibly by launching a national search, as Bates suggested. Wycoff said she would hold the superintendent accountable “for building a more inclusive work force,” adding that the district needs to improve its support systems for all new teachers.

For Mann, the discussion was an opening to touch on an argument he has pursued through seven School Board campaigns. He blames district hiring and firing practices for clustering inexperienced teachers in schools with high proportions of poor and minority students, exacerbating the achievement gap.

Later in the evening, a question from the moderators noted ELL students often lag behind their peers on state tests for years after joining Minneapolis Public Schools. One way to give English-learning communities a boost would be through early childhood education programs, they suggested, but the moderators said Cedar-Riverside, with the state’s highest concentration of East African families, didn’t have easy access to quality preschools.

Every candidate pledged to help in one way or another, and both Reimnitz and Wycoff noted it could take a partnership with the city or the county to bring a new early childhood center to the area. Several others, including Ellison and Asberry, urged the community to be more vocal about its needs and demand change from the School Board.

With the night’s final question, the moderators expressed some of the frustration their community felt over Changing School Options, the plan that in 2010 redrew school attendance boundaries and generally funneled students into schools closer to their homes in an attempt to rein-in transportation spending. There was widespread dissatisfaction with the plan — and not just in the East African community — in the way it shifted school pathways.

Ellison, whose youngest daughter lost her pathway to South High School under the plan, was, like the other candidates, sympathetic to their frustrations. Wycoff, for one, has waged a campaign that advocates for greater community involvement in district decision-making in direct response to Changing School Options. Like her, Kaplan decried “top-down” district planning.

Reimnitz made a point that the other candidates did not disagree with, linking frustration over shifting school pathways to a much deeper problem for the district: the uneven quality of its schools, and the perceived lack of good schools in some parts of the city.

Bates, who served on the board that approved the plan, acknowledged its shortcomings, but said painful trade-offs were a part of governing. She reminded the audience of her successful campaign to save Pratt Community School from closing, which kept open a pathway for ELL students.