The Minneapolis Public Schools board of education on May 9 clocked in at almost four and a half hours. We wrote about the portion of the meeting related to the budget for fiscal year 2024 in a separate article. The rest of the meeting included several topics related to academics, including graduate rates and the online tutoring program; a proposed resolution to form a community working group on special education; a range of comments and questions from board members; and lengthy public comments.

Graduation Rates Increased in 2022

Districtwide, graduation rates for the district rebounded, and increased by three percentage points compared to 2021, according to State data presented to the board by Executive Director Sarah Hunter. She explained that the State reclassified some students, going back to 2019, to include a broader definition of American Indian students. The new definition changed the graduation rate data for American Indian students compared to what had been previously reported. In the past, a student who identified as two or more races, and included American Indian as one, were only reported as two or more races. The State reclassified those students as American Indian.

Graduation rates increased the most for African American students, increasing four percentage points compared to 2021, and exceeding the 2019 graduation rate by one percentage point.

Since 2013, graduation rates for students receiving special education services have increased from 25% to 52% in 2022.

Overall, the graduation rate for the district is 77%.

Chair Sharon El-Amin noted the divergence between students’ academic assessments and graduation rates.

“If graduation rates are going up, are our children prepared for life after school?” El-Amin asked at the board meeting.

Interim Superintendent Rochelle Cox said that this is one of the reasons why the intervention triads will be at middle and high schools, and not just in elementary grades, next year.

“I want every parent out there of an eleventh grader or tenth grader or ninth grader to know that there is support next year if their student is struggling in reading or math,” Cox said.

Cox also said that within high schools, there are many accommodations happening for students who are struggling with basic literacy and numeracy in other content areas.

Senior Academic Officer Aimee Fearing explained that the district is currently auditing high school courses to determine whether or not they meet all State standards. As part of that process, she said the district has already told at least one high school, “You are assigning graduation credit for a course that we don’t believe meets State standards.”

Fearing characterized this as part of upcoming “courageous conversations” ahead for some high schools. She said this is part of “raising the bar and expectations for learning.” The process will also look at how grades are assigned and how students are assessed.

Online Math and Literacy Tutoring Program Update

Last fall, the board approved contracts with two companies to provide online “high-dosage” tutoring to elementary students in math and literacy. The district identified students based on FAST assessments who were significantly below grade level and offered the services to their schools. Principals could opt out of the program, and some did.

Overall, the district allocated $3 million to the program, but Fearing reported that she expects the district to only spend about $400,000 total between the two providers.

Across elementary schools, 586 students have participated in the program, so far, at 23 schools. Some students who were identified for the services are not participating because their attendance is not consistent enough. Schools have identified a range of practices to incorporate the online tutoring into students’ regular school day.

Based on assessments provided by the companies, students have shown academic growth. The district does not yet have its own FAST assessment data for students who participated. It did not share the demographics of the students who participated in the program beyond grade level.

Fearing said that there were some challenges setting up the program, including getting students the right technology to participate.

Intervention Triads

Director Lori Norvell raised concerns about the proposed intervention triads, and whether the district is giving schools enough autonomy by requiring the new positions be utilized for only academic interventions in literacy and math for students who are below grade level.

“I’m concerned about what’s going to happen after this year. I’m concerned about, when administrators asked about doing something different, they were told no,” Norvell said. “Is this a done deal?”

Cox emphasized that the intention is for the triads to help students who are below grade level in math and literacy across the district make additional growth towards meeting grade level proficiency next year. She added that schools have been given some autonomy about how to implement the interventionist staffing.

“It was very important to me that the staffing piece look very similar across [the district] so we can decide what’s working and what isn’t working,” Cox said.

Director Abdul Abdi asked how the intervention triads will be evaluated to know whether or not they are making an impact on academic outcomes.

According to Hunter the district will be implementing new software next year, called Educlimber, that will allow the district to track which students have been identified as needing academic intervention, what type of and how much intervention students receive, and what impact the intervention has on student assessments. Hunter said that the district currently has no way to determine how many students receive intervention, what interventions schools are using, how much intervention students are receiving, and what the impact of that intervention is on student outcomes.

New Staff for Direct Services to Advanced Learners

The budget allocations for schools next year now include funding for specific staffing for advanced learners. Senior Academic Officer Aimee Fearing explained that advanced learners is the term the district uses instead of gifted and talented, which is the State’s term for students of exceptional academic ability.

Abdi asked for information about which schools have a differentiation specialist to develop programming for advanced learners, and why every school does not have the same level of staffing for advanced learners. The district previously included funding to all elementary schools for a halftime differentiation specialist. The district stopped providing that funding in school budgets starting with the current school year.

Fearing said the State provides the district with $13 per student each year for gifted and talented education. The district can use the funds to identify students for services, provide educators with professional development, and to provide services to identified students.

Previously, the district had used most of this funding for professional development. Fearing said parents of advanced learners have asked for direct services for their students, instead of differentiation within a general education classroom. In response to this request, the district piloted what she called “itinerant teachers” this year to provide direct services to advanced learner students. In addition to advanced learners, teachers and parents could request for students to receive the additional services.

Next year, districtwide, the proposed budget will allocate $1.5 million to expand the itinerant teacher program to provide direct services to all advanced learners in their school. The district typically identifies students for advanced learner services starting in third grade based on an evaluation given in the fall of second grade. Parents can request additional evaluation after second grade.

Fearing said the district also operates a program called Minneapolis Young Scholars program in Northside elementary schools. This program helps K-2 students prepare for the advanced learner evaluation, called COGAT. Fearing said that this program has helped to increase the number of BIPOC students who are identified as advanced learners in the district.

Proposed Resolution to Develop a Community Working Group on Special Education

At the board meeting, Director Joyner Emerick proposed a resolution for the board to vote on at the June 13 board meeting that directs  Cox to develop a proposal for a community work group on special education. The proposal would be shared with the board in the fall, giving the board the opportunity to approve, amend or reject the proposal.

Emerick noted that the district disproportionately places students in so-called segregated settings compared to other districts in the State. A segregated setting is a special education classroom that is separate from a general education classroom and where students spend all or most of their instructional time.

In addition, Emerick said about one third of instructional costs in the district are spent on special education services for just 18% of students. Despite the district’s significant investments in special education services, Emerick said that parents, students and educators remain dissatisfied with the district’s services.

As recently as 2014, the district paid for an external audit of its special education services. That audit included a series of recommendations, including changing the district’s elementary literacy instructional practices and moving away from a so-called pull-out model to a push-in model for a large portion of students who receive special education services. In a pull-out model, students receive most special education support outside of the general education classroom. In a push-in model, students receive most support inside of the general education classroom. The existing public record does not indicate the district implemented the recommendations from the audit in any significant way.

Several Public Commenters Expressed Concerns About Closing Schools

During public comments, several people voiced concerns about the potential that the district may close schools.

Director Fathia Feerayarre asked for more information from district administration on why the district has brought up this possibility.

“What’s the reason we’re discussing closing schools?” Feerayarre asked.

Cox stated explicitly that any decisions to close schools would be a decision made by the school board and not district administration. She said she believes the comments are related to the discussions the board has started related to “district transformation.”

“People are picking up on our discussions and making inferences,” Cox said. “As a staff we are not making any recommendations about school closings at this time. We are following the direction of the board and as you look at that, and you do that transformative work.”

In response, El-Amin said, “The transformation conversation is one that we know is needed. Whether it shows up in the form of closing schools or downsizing when it comes to staffing, that is a decision and a discussion that we as a board will continue to have. And that is what we are actually starting to have with the discussion of the transformation of our schools.”

Cox said that she expects that as board discussions about district transformation continue, the administration will help determine how much that will cost.

“That’s where we will really come up with really hard decisions about what we want to fund and where we will figure out where that money will come from,” Cox said. “Whenever we talk about that transformation work, we have to talk about on-ramps for both staff and families and students to participate in that discussion.”

At the end of the meeting, Director Ira Jourdain expressed frustration that the transformation discussion had not moved faster. He said he told many people to follow the last Committee of the Whole meeting to learn more about the transformation process, but was disappointed that the meeting was instead a facilitated board retreat. Jourdain believes other board members share his concerns about the pace of discussions, but are not sharing that publicly.

“There are thousands of people who watch these meetings,” Jourdain said. “They are tired of listening to a facilitator talk about absolutely nothing.”

Public Commenters Again Requested Heritage STEM Magnet Designation

Several parents and staff from Heritage Academy spoke during public comments to ask that the school be officially designated as the magnet pathway high school for STEM students. During the CDD process, members of the Heritage Academy community believed the school would receive this designation. The district has contended that the designation was not made as part of the CDD. Rather, Heritage is considered a Citywide program, not a magnet school.

Magnet designation would mean students enrolled in the K-8 STEM magnet at Sullivan, and the middle school STEAM magnet at Franklin would be automatically enrolled at Heritage for high school. Currently, magnet schools are supported with State achievement and integration funds, and through the placement lottery the district aims for the programs to reflect the economic diversity of the district.

Cox noted that Heritage serves as the pathway for the Somali heritage language program within the district. It is not clear how that pathway would interact with designating the school as a magnet.

Cox also noted that an additional consideration is whether a high school STEM pathway should be connected to the new Career and Technical Education building at North High School.

The district does not currently have any official magnet schools for high school students. Informally, FAIR functions as a magnet high school for the arts and Roosevelt functions as a magnet high school for students in the Spanish immersion program at Andersen.

Ultimately, the board must decide whether to consider the magnet designation for Heritage separately, or as part of the work it has started around school transformation.

The school board meets next on May 16 for a special business meeting to discuss the superintendent search. On May 25 the board will have its next Committee of the Whole meeting. Neither meeting will include public comments, but votes can be taken at the special business meeting.