The Minneapolis Public Schools Board of Education met on Oct. 24 for its monthly committee of the whole meeting. All board directors were present except District 3 Director Fathia Ferrayarre, who was traveling. The board spent the majority of the meeting listening and responding to a presentation from Interim Superintendent Rochelle Cox about upcoming steps in the process of “school transformation.” Although the district has s no explicit timeline or proposal, Cox did outline an initial phase of community engagement through a series of “world cafe” style conversations across the district, and “walkthroughs” of school facilities to reconcile the physical spaces shown in blueprints with the reality of how schools are currently utilizing physical space in district facilities. The board also reached consensus on a plan to add sixth grade back to Seward, the district’s Montessori magnet school, to align the grade levels with the traditional Montessori system.

The district and board are still trying to define “school transformation.”

For the second time, the board rejected a proposed definition of “school transformation” brought to them by Cox. The revised definition, presented Tuesday read,

“Transformation within Minneapolis Public Schools is the realization of our mission and vision through the successful implementation of the strategic plan. Transformation touches on all areas of our student’s lives: academic, well-being, access to effective staff and a positive school and district climate. Transformation must be both sustainable and ensure that each and every student’s needs are met, regardless of race, culture and home language.”

The board said it lacked specific references to the likelihood of school closings and consolidations, or eliminating programs.

“While we might not have [specifics] yet, I think that’s what our community is wanting.” said Director Lori Norvell. “They want to know what does this transformation mean? Does it mean school consolidations, closing, restructuring? “I don’t know if we’re ready to say that yet, and if we’re not, that’s ok.”

Board Chair Sharon El-Amin and Directors Joyner Emerick and Collin Beachy concurred with Norvell, asking for a definition that specifically names the potential to close or consolidate schools, as a way of being more transparent with the community.

Emerick said  that even if the district was not implementing its strategic plan, it would still be facing the need to reduce spending because ongoing expenses exceed ongoing revenue for the district. Beachy said that transformation may include expanding some existing programs or adding new programs.

Cox said that she was willing to take further direction from the board to include more specifics in the definition of “school transformation” but said  she views the strategic plan as the guiding document for what “school transformation” will ultimately be. She noted that the ongoing work of estimating the cost of implementing the strategic plan will likely highlight the need of the district to change how it allocates its funding. Those changes could include cutting programs, closing schools or altering the district’s predictable staffing model among other changes.

Community engagement about school transformation could begin this school year through conversational meetings across the district.

Cox shared her vision for “world cafe” style events, hosted across the district, to gather information from the community about their priorities for a transformed district. “World cafe” conversations are a form of structured group conversations, where participants rotate between tables, with a different topic at each table. Cox proposed the events be limited to 30-50 participants, with additional events added if needed to meet community need for engagement. She suggested meetings be hosted by board directors, the district’s parent advisory councils, the World’s Best Workforce committee and Citywide Student Leadership, with district administration supporting the events.

Cox proposed that the topics for these events be centered around the strategic plan goals. Director Ira Jourdain disagreed with this suggestion, noting that community members are likely to want to talk about the potential for changes to their specific school, attendance boundaries, transportation zones or pathways. He also said some board directors are not very engaged in their community, which leads to an uneven amount of community engagement across the district.

“We want to make sure that community is walking with us,” El-Amin said of her hope for community engagement.

As part of planning for “school transformation” Cox proposes “walkthroughs” of district facilities to understand what space exists and how it is currently being used.

Before the district can form a plan for “school transformation,” Cox said it needs additional information about its facilities, beyond the blueprints and capacity estimates the facilities department currently has. She proposed “walkthroughs” of each district building that would include the principal, associate superintendent, and both teacher and ESP union stewards, to gather information about how schools are currently using spaces. Much like the district’s predictable staffing model, which guarantees a minimum level of staffing at each school, Cox expects a school transformation plan will include a “predictable spaces” model for the facilities that the district wants to have at each of its schools.

In previous meetings, the board has discussed that many schools are currently using some spaces designed as classrooms in alternative ways, including prayer rooms and calming spaces, to meet student needs. Because of the age of many district buildings, they were not designed to accommodate these nontraditional uses.

Cox anticipates that the “walk-throughs” would take three months to complete, and could begin as soon as this month. Once completed, she suggested that the results be shared with site councils and student councils at each school to build a “shared understanding” of the physical spaces and needs at each building.

Board members were generally in agreement with the suggested walkthroughs. However, the board proposed some changes, including moving the walkthroughs before the “world cafe” conversations, inviting board members to join the walkthroughs, and addressing how to share the results with schools that do not have an active site council.

The school board’s  Finance Committee Chair, Director Abdul Abdi, asked that as part of the  building walkthroughs the district reevaluate its capital plan to determine whether the plan matches with the facility needs of the district. In addition to the capital projects undertaken as part of the Comprehensive District Design, the district is still not finished with three other major upgrades to its buildings: adding or upgrading on-site kitchen facilities, adding or upgrading air conditioning, and adding or upgrading building entrances.

Emerick asked that the walkthroughs include an expert on special education to identify how existing facilities could be used to make more inclusive spaces for special education students. And, Cerrillo asked for multilingual learner staff to be included on the walk-throughs to make sure the needs of those students’ needs are accounted for. Administration did not say if these requests would be included in the walkthroughs.

The board does not yet have access to an extensive data dashboard with information on enrollment, academics, staffing and facilities about each school

Cox showed the board a sample view of a data dashboard she says is largely complete. At a school board meeting earlier this month, the dashboard was to be finished by the end of October. Cox showed data from Andersen Middle School, including data on school-age children in the attendance zone who attend an MPS school, enrollment, academics, discipline, attendance, staffing, budget, building maintenance costs, and capital investments for the school. The data dashboard has not been shared with the board or public, yet. Before sharing with the board and public, Cox said she will be sharing the dashboard with stakeholders first. Cox did not say who these stakeholders are.

“I’ve gotten to see part of the dashboard and it’s amazing, but also, it brings a new level of transparency that we have not seen from our district,” Cox said.

Board members reached a consensus to add sixth grade to Seward Montessori School  to align the school with traditional Montessori grade levels.

According to Cox, Montessori schools traditionally group students in grades first, second and third into one set of classrooms, and students in fourth, fifth and sixth grade into another set of classrooms. Seward is currently arranged like the district’s other elementary schools, and includes kindergarten through fifth grade. Under the proposal, sixth grade would be added to the school. Seward has 86 fifth grade students who, under the proposed changes, would be eligible to remain at Seward for sixth grade in the 2024-25 school year, according to the preliminary enrollment report for this school year.

At the Oct. 24 meeting, Cox said the principal, educators and families at Seward have been asking for the addition of sixth grade for multiple years. The issue came up at the school board last spring as part of a suite of proposals to complete the implementation of the Comprehensive District Design. Those proposals also included designating Heritage Academy as a STEM magnet high school and extending the global humanities program at Ella Baker Global Studies & Humanities School into district high schools. The board did not discuss these other changes to magnet programs.

Adding sixth grade to Seward Montessori School would primarily impact Andersen Middle School and Northeast Middle School. Of the 86 fifth graders currently enrolled at Seward, 44 would be on the pathway to Andersen Middle School based on their home address. However, Cox told the board that typically, Seward families have left Minneapolis Public Schools after elementary school, choosing to enroll their students elsewhere. By adding sixth grade to Seward Montessori School, Cox said it is possible the families would remain in the district for sixth grade, and potentially the rest of middle school.

While additional staff would have to be added at Seward to accommodate sixth grade, Andersen and Northeast Middle Schools could potentially lose funding and staffing with the change. Emerick and Abdi said they could support the change, if those schools could be held harmless in terms of their funding. Cox could not say whether the change would increase costs, decrease costs, or be cost neutral. Committee of the whole meetings are for discussion only, and no votes were taken on adding sixth grade to Seward Montessori School.