Protesters force Minneapolis School Board to rehire people of color

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A recent school board meeting in Minneapolis was the scene of a large protest against a series of firings that affected people of color disproportionately. The Superintendent, Ed Graff, says the firings are the result of a $28 million hole in the district’s budget – the result of overspending for five years straight. Protesters rejected that explanation. Their direct action forced board members to make an on-the-spot decision, over-ruling their superintendent, about rehiring fired staff. Below is a post about the issues driving the public outcry, written by Iris Altamirano, a community organizer and former candidate for Minneapolis School Board.

Firings Ring out at Minneapolis School District

by Iris Altamirano

In a family outing recently, I had to explain the sound of gunshots to my son. He is 5. We were about 100 miles north of our home in Northeast Minneapolis and we heard many shots fired. Not one, or two, but a lot. Enough that we retreated into the camper to muffle out the sound. The shots did not last long, but long enough to make an impact. I want to put out another talk that needs to be had. This talk is in regards to the Minneapolis Public School’s latest firings.

Two Fridays before spring break, shots were fired into the Office of Student, Family and Community Engagement (OSFE), Global Education, and Educational Support Professionals (ESPs), or paraprofessionals. The vast majority of personnel in these departments are a reflection of the people of color and indigenous (poci) communities they serve. In Minneapolis, 66 percent of students are of color. The same cannot be said of the city’s teacher workforce. Only 16 percent of the district’s teacher workforce are teachers of color. By contrast, the district’s paraprofessionals are a comparatively diverse group: 48 percent are people of color and 11 percent are bilingual. In many, many schools these are the ONLY staff of color. In many, many schools these are the ONLY staff that speak Spanish, or Somali, or Hmong, that are communicating with families.

Taking aim at those departments and their personnel was Superintendent Ed Graff, in what can be considered his biggest decision since being hired by the Minneapolis Board of Education last July. The same Ed Graff that was widely praised for his positions or racial equity when he was hired. Communications Director Tanya Tennessen said during a budget discussion that cuts were made “to get ahead” of Minneapolis Public Schools’ 5 year streak of operating $28-30 Million over budget. The “getting ahead” resolution is to cut 25% of the district budget and 10% of each school sites budget. At a recent District Parent Advisory Committee, I asked Superintendent Ed Graff how race is playing out in recent cuts, regardless of talent, qualifications, or effectiveness? Graff’s answer was disappointing: “Institutional racism has been around long before [him],” he stated.

Today, this is how institutional racism is playing out in Minneapolis Public Schools.

Shots Fired at the District level

– All women of color in Director or Executive Director positions have been cut, including the highest-ranking Latina & Deputy Education Officer, Elia Bruggeman, Director of Family & Partnerships, Lynnea Altas-Ingebreston, and Director of Teaching & Learning, Macarre Taynham.

-The Title I department has been dismantled, which included many people of color.

– The Integration Director, Dr. Lanise Block has been dismissed.

– Many of the teachers of color that were just hired by Macarre Traynham, Director of Teaching & Learning (who was also cut), have been let go.

– All Cultural Liaisons in the Office of Student, Family and Community Engagement (OSFE) and the only known survivor of the OSFE is a white male.

– Seven candidates from the Aspiring Principals pool were invited to interview for three positions as Principal or Assistant Principal. The four candidates who were put back into the pool were all people of color, and the three who received positions were all white.

Shots Fired at the School Site Level

– Schools cannot cut the math teacher, so across the board the vast majority of schools have cut their ESPs (Educational Support Professionals). In many, many schools these are the ONLY staff of color. In many, many schools these are the ONLY staff that speak Spanish, or Somali, or Hmong, that are communicating with families.

– Parents have been reporting that in at least one school, Pillsbury, the Spanish language programing is being greatly reduced.

-Educators like Eduardo Salgado Diaz, an English as a Second Language (ESL) teacher at Andersen United Community School, and Lor Vang, a Social Worker at Hmong International Academy, and countless others, who will no longer be serving Minneapolis kids.

The many, many shots fired not only have several local Latinx leaders very concerned, but they ring out in familiar ways for those of us who come from humble backgrounds, and are echoes of the societal inequalities that affect us every day. These are echoes of the forms of overt, subtle, and implicit bias that plague our society and our school district.

There are so many different things that can be done. It is hard to pick one thing. There is no magic bullet solution, but these are systemic problems that have to be addressed on so many levels because there will be negative impacts.

To begin the generations-long conversation, we want an explanation as to why such a disproportionate number of staff of color are being fired, “forced to resign,” or “not being recommended for rehire,” even when the total number of jobs in public education are growing?

Minneapolis must pull together to get a great leader for kids

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Minneapolis is learning (again) what almost any school district knows: it’s hard to find a good superintendent.

The school board here met recently to admit their year-long search has failed spectacularly, and to offer assurances they will get it right from here on. So far they have watched their preferred candidate Sergio Paez crash after reports of child abuse in his former district emerged. Their second candidate Michael Goar removed his name from consideration after bruising interactions with community protesters.

Now, there is disarray. Maybe that isn’t a bad thing. That might be better than a smooth process that settled on a mediocre candidate.

It’s easy to beat up on a school board that is so obviously troubled, and to expose every point in incompetence that characterizes their tenure. While tempting, that solves nothing. The important thing is focusing on the fact that Minneapolis children are not getting what they need out of these schools. Everything we do should be about improving their lot.

Have you seen last year’s academic results? If not, please review them, internalize them, and ask yourself what the future holds for children and the city if we don’t do all we can to acquire the best possible leader?

By best possible leader I mean one who has a demonstrable understanding of how big systems work, how academics are bolstered, and how a workforce is best enabled to do outstanding work.

We are at a point where there are no easy answers. Our problems are profound. But, fortunately, we are ahead of many cities when it comes to assets. It would be a shame to miss this opportunity to draw upon our vast resources.

I’d suggest city leaders work together to build confidence and integrity into the superintendent hiring process by establishing a blue ribbon search committee made up of people with obvious social capital and executive skills. It could include members of the political class with enough position and power to signal to great candidates that the city of Minneapolis is capable of supporting a strong leader for the public schools.

They should send a strong signal that the leadership community stands together in the mission for better schools, and they should communicate a capacity for the extra-judicial power needed to carry the leader through tough times with an unreliable board and a divided community.

So, who should lead such a thing? Any names I give you will cause someone heartburn. There are no universally loved people in this village.

Everyone has some bodies buried. I know where many of them lie. Accepting that everyone is flawed, there is still a need to use whatever human assets we have to lure candidates from other cities here.

Maybe the search committee could be led by the last three Mayors, R.T. Rybak, Sharon Sayles-Belton, and Betsy Hodges. They could get help from Grassroots Solutions and a new (better) firm to form a gold standard search process with representatives from students, parents, educators, faith leaders, business, and labor.

Please don’t get hung up on the proposed names. Maybe it’s them, maybe not. But the idea is that anyone applying for the job see a united group of powerful people extending one hand of welcome.

Whether or not you accept this as a workable path forward, I offer three agreements all parties should agree on.

First, the MPS school board should not have to walk alone in this process. With so many fully funded organizations with mission statements saying they bring people together to improve education, including Generation Next, Minnesota Comeback, Achievement Minneapolis, and others, this is a time to make all those dollars and PowerPoints work for once.

Second, we must set high expectations for the leader we need. That starts with an honest assessment of our troubles and a clear understanding of what the next leader would need to accomplish to be successful. We can’t merely choose a superintendent based on fraternal ties, emotive platitudes, and simplistic pragmatism.

Finally, we must commit to keeping our focus on children, not politics. There will be time later to consider all the world’s conspiracies and ideological battles that fascinate those with too much time to assess the lint in their navels. For now, we should put away childish things, buckle down and collaborate on an apolitical, nonpartisan, objective process.

This is a test of all the pride people in Minneapolis have in their city. Can everyone rally around the goal of landing the educational leader our children deserve?

I think so.

The ghosts in Minneapolis’ “progressive” machine

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Last year Nekima Levy-Pounds told me that conditions in the Twin Cities were ripe for it to be another Ferguson. I disagreed. The people in power here control their people with a smug brand of I-know-what’s-best-for-you liberalism, and the people under their boot often seem too docile to resist.

A year later, I’m proven wrong.

For a week smoke has been rising on Minneapolis’ North side, and protesters have been holding it down at the 4th precinct police station, an action spurred by the officer involved shooting of Jamar Clark. Injustices like Clark’s have happened before, but this time, because of young people and their brilliant impatience with business as usual, it is exposing the longstanding problem with policing – here and in other urban communities.

While most Americans express an almost childish appreciation for law enforcement in their communities, there is a predictable difference of opinion between races. At least 72% of whites express confidence in police officers, but only 36% of blacks agree. In fact, 70% of blacks say police departments do not treat races equally, and are not accountable for misconduct.

Researchers say experience with police officers matters, and in low-income communities where much of the experience is bad, opinion is understandably low.

While suburban residents see their police officers as servants, and middle-class city dwellers often see them as the buffer between haves and have-nots in inequitable urban centers, neighborhoods like the Northside see a face of policing that is often white, angry, and medieval.

Sadly, cries of racism in poor neighborhoods go unanswered, and few believe the extent to which police departments are staffed with honest-to-God racists.

Ghosts in the machine

There is a warning tucked neatly in a 2006 report from the Federal Bureau of investigations about “ghost skins,” a network of whites with extremist positions who don alternate personas so that they can infiltrate law enforcement, state government, and the military to further the cause of white power.

In Minneapolis it would be hard to believe such a problem could exist. It’s liberal here. Very liberal. It would be harder to push a camel through the eye of a needle than to elect a Republican in Minneapolis. Yet, the police department is mostly made up of suburban and exurban officers who come from parts of Minnesota that aren’t liberal.

The Minneapolis Police Department is famous for paying out millions of dollars to settle abuse claims (Minneapolis has paid out $14 million in settlements between 2006 and 2012), and for having racial strife internally. In 1992 black officers said they received hate mail, possibly from within their own ranks. Later, two Minneapolis City Council members, Brian Herron and Ralph Remington, reported racist harassment from Minneapolis police officers.

After years of complaints, lawsuits, and charges of racism at all levels of the department, the MPD is also known for having leadership that looks a lot like the ghost skins mentioned in the feds report.

Nobody better exemplifies that than Lt. Bob Kroll, the current president of Minneapolis’ police union. A native of St. Paul’s Eastside (a part of the neighboring twin city with its own history of racism), he has a long documented record of racial violence that includes complaints from residents going back to the 1990s.

In his own defense, he has said “I’ve been told I’m racist, and I’m violent. I’m aware of that. I’ve been 15 of my 18 in SWAT, and I’ve had more complaints than most, but I’ve had much higher contacts, and a much higher number of arrests…. I’ve been cleared almost all the time.”

One charge that he didn’t beat, one that he denied even against the testimony of multiple witnesses, is that he called Congressman Keith Ellison a terrorist.

That’s not comforting reply for people of color. But it gets worse. Kroll has been a member of the City Heat Motorcycle Club, a biker gang that an Anti-Defamation League report called “Bigots on Bikes” said “has members who have openly displayed white supremacist symbols.”

The report says:

Photographs of City Heat members taken by other club members and posted to the Internet have shown that some members of the club display a number of symbols on their clothing that have white supremacist or hateful connotations. One member sports a patch that asks “Are you here for the hanging?”—a reference to lynching. The lynching theme is corroborated by a small chain noose the individual wears next to the patch. Another City Heat member displays the most common Ku Klux Klan symbol, the so-called “Blood Drop Cross.” Several members wear “Proud to be White” patches, an item typically worn by white supremacists.

This came up in a lawsuit by black Minneapolis police officers who said Kroll “wears a motorcycle jacket with a “White Power” badge sewn onto it.”

That isn’t exactly what you might expect for any level of leadership in a “progressive” city, but Kroll is representative of what rank and file white police officers feel they need to defend their interests. As suburbanites working in an urban area, as whites policing other races, they need a leader who understands you have to crack a few eggs to make an omelet.

Apparently Kroll delivers. He has made defending cops in discipline hearings his business. If the number of sustained complaints of abuse are any indication, it’s a good time to be an abusive cop in Minneapolis. A recent Star Tribune story said no cops have been disciplined after 439 complaints through the city’s largely ineffective new police review system.

Kroll isn’t alone. Hennepin County’s sheriff, Rich Stanek, has a history not unlike Kroll’s.

A 2006 City Pages article reports on an incident that occurred between Stanek and Anthony Freeman – a black motorist – in 1989:

at the vehicle. Stanek then, according to the plaintiff, smashed the driver’s side window. He ordered Freeman out of the car, “collared” him, and delivered two blows to his back and neck before handcuffing him, while Freeman was facedown on the ground. Freeman’s complaint went on to allege that Stanek “beat and kicked” him “with his fists, feet, and other police-issued paraphernalia.” The Liberian maintained he never resisted, because he knew Stanek was a cop. Freeman—who, according to a depostion provided in the case by the late MPD officer Jerry Haaf, had not been drinking—sought $50,000; the case was settled out of court for $40,000.

That settlement was forgotten until 2004 when Stanek was up for a gig as Minnesota’s Public Safety Commissioner. The hubbub derailed his appointment. A few years later he ran for Hennepin County Sheriff, this time with odd support from some progressives, including some black leaders.

That could be an example of adapting, and adopting a persona that makes racism untraceable.

Let’s not assume all of the systemic racism in Minneapolis can be laid at the feet of folks like Kroll and Stanek, or law enforcement generally. Even as protestors risk their lives and bravely make demands of the system they are confronted with urges for calm from institutional progressives who support the mayor’s effort to be “measured.” Northside City Council member Blong Yang complained on Facebook that the protestors were unreasonable, and the city chair of the Democratic Party thanking him for standing up to the “bullies.” And, members of the black old guard with ties to the mayor’s office appear more interested in managing the behavior of the natives than supporting young people in the pursuit of structural changes, and justice.

If it weren’t for the new energy of Black Lives Matter, new leadership at the NAACP, ground troops from Neighborhood’s Organizing for Change, and the sect of organized labor that has found their diversity Jesus, there wouldn’t be any smoke, any fire, any chants, any sustained action that steps out of Minnesota’s addiction to process and meetings in order to get things done.

Because these groups are disturbing the peace the nation now knows we are the capital of white bullshit.

As black activists nationally have reminded everyone to question it if they die in police custody, we have a uniquely Minnesotan response from Tony Cornish, a state representative and Chairman of our Public Safety Prevention Committee.

He says:

If you die in this struggle, you are the one who did something wrong, not me. I was doing my job the best I could. I will regret this tragic incident ever took place, but I will not be ashamed or intimidated.

Ghost skins indeed.

Occupying black communities is good work, if you can get it

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For the past week, a determined mass of community activists have held down an encampment around Minneapolis’ 4th precinct police headquarters in protest of the officer involved shooting and killing of Jamar Clark, a black man who witnesses say was unarmed and handcuffed on the ground when he was shot.

There is a dramatic contrast between the mixed-race, mixed income community of people who make up the protestors; and the police officers outfitted with military gear who stand like an urban assault force asymmetrically against community members.

No picture better illustrates that than the one of Jeremiah Bey with his hands in the air as a white police officer points a “marking” gun directly at him.

It should be noted that Bey is a native of North Minneapolis, a section of town with a strong black legacy, and also a community economically redlined and deprived of quality city services more affluent areas take for granted. He is also the son of Keith Ellison, America’s first congressman who happens to be Muslim (and the person who most exemplifies Paul Wellstone’s progressive tradition).

Occupiers in the hood

In the mid-1990s, Minneapolis enacted a requirement that police officers (and other municipal workers) had to live in the city as a condition of employment. Residency requirements were common in urban cities like Chicago, Cleveland, Denver, Memphis, Milwaukee, and Boston. Local officials saw residency requirements as an economic support for a healthy middle-class in cities that were losing people. 

Many working professionals, and their unions, felt differently.

In 2000, an article by Alan Ehrenhalt in Governing magazine said municipal employee unions “never liked residency laws…[b]ut as long as it remained strictly a battle between unions and city government, and city hall could claim that residency laws are an effective weapon against middle-class flight (which they are), the balance of power lay largely on the government side.”

The balance of power was upset by teachers’ unions, education bureaucrats, and power parents who joined coalitions to take down residency requirements.

Ehrenhalt says:

But in the past couple of years, residency laws have become embroiled in the much broader debate over school quality. School boards, superintendents and parent activists have joined organized teachers in arguing that a residency requirement for teachers makes it difficult to recruit and keep the best talent.

In 1999, Minneapolis’ residency requirements faced political pushback when suburban and out-of-state legislators worked with organized labor to overturn the city’s rules. One of the architects of a law to do just that was former Minneapolis Police Captain (and Republican legislator) Rich Stanek.

At the time DFL State Senator Wes Skoglund warned against repealing the “live-where-you-work” rules. He said police officers from suburbia and exurbia would eventually see themselves as an occupying force.

In 2009 he told The Plain Dealer that his prediction had come true:

There are absolutely some cops who see it as their responsibility to come in and supervise us….We have officers who have never been in a local store except to arrest somebody and have never gone for a walk in our parks unless they were chasing somebody. People who have never been to a movie in Minneapolis, or eaten a meal in a restaurant here, are coming into town to supervise us. These are people who did not grow up around a single person who did not look like them.

After Stanek’s law took effect the number of city workers living in Minneapolis dropped from 68% to 30%.

Today, of the Minneapolis’s 807 sworn police officers, 9% are black, and 4% are Hispanic.

94% of these officers live outside of the city they “serve.”

Likewise, an analysis of 2011 data for Minneapolis public school teachers shows only 35% of them lived in Minneapolis. Most drive in from suburban areas. The diversity numbers are terrible. Of the 3,472 teachers, 202 were black, 84 were Latino, 96 were Asian, and 41 were American Indian.

That type of flight from Minneapolis robs the city of tax revenue. It also creates a disconnect between Minneapolitans and the people who police them, teach them, and execute city business.

As you might expect, official statements from the political class in Minneapolis (and statewide) are starting to roll in. Expressions of grief about the officer-involved killing of an unarmed black man are coupled with obligatory support for the peaceful protestors. Yet, there is institutional resistance to structural change.

The Mayor of Minneapolis is busy attempting to serve two masters: the community that believed she would represent an era of new leadership taking cues from Ellison and Wellstone, and, conversely, the institutional interests that have fortified the political, economic, and social structures that make areas like the Northside great places to earn a living, but less desirable to live.

Real, meaningful proposals for changing who runs the major institutions of Minneapolis are far off.

Meanwhile, the city is occupied by officers like the one in the video below. His view of North Minneapolis is probably one that will be shared at many suburban and exurban Thanksgiving tables when non-resident city workers are asked by their red county relatives what it’s like to work in that jungle that is the city.


You can’t address the ‘achievement’ gap by ignoring Eurocentrism in education

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Last night protestors seized a meeting of the Minneapolis board of education over the district’s contract with a Utah-based publisher of Reading Horizons, a reading curriculum that has become controversial after parents and teachers called some of its materials ‘offensive.”

At issue are depictions of native people, like ‘Lazy Lucy,’ that readers found racially backward. This comes a few months after that district was challenged by activists for using software that simulated the slavery experience.

With Reading Horizons, the district has struggled to find a way to acknowledge concerns about the specific reading materials that caused alarm, without ending the contract with the publisher. They believe the curriculum itself is evidence-tested, and sound. Teachers are mixed. Some support the curriculum and some don’t. District leaders say the materials could be replaced with non-offensive ones, and the program itself would help students who lag in reading improve.

But protestors see things differently. Do you really need to spend over $1 million with a culturally incompetent curriculum provider? Is it possible to teach struggling readers to read without running into issues of cultural incompetency?

This dustup in Minneapolis isn’t an insignificant blip.

While school reform magnifies battles over governance, school models, teacher practice and evaluation, and other issues, there hasn’t been a lot of focus on curriculum reform.

Yet, it recently made headlines when a mom in Texas busted McGraw-Hill for calling enslaved people “workers” in a history text-book.

Yes, we have the occasional article that examines some of the more ridiculous offenses in textbooks.

But these examples haven’t turned into a popular movement for change in curriculum production, adoption, and delivery. That’s interesting given the monumental importance of curriculum in the foundation of a school and learning.

Enter “The Hidden Value of Curriculum Reform,” a new report from the Center for American Progress. According to CAP’s research curriculum reform is a low-cost, high impact endeavor.

Here are some of the report’s key findings:

  • Higher-quality curriculum in elementary school math can come at a relatively low-cost. The authors analyzed six pairs of curricula, where each pair included a lower-quality and higher-quality version. The authors looked at how much it would cost for a school to switch from a lower-quality product to a higher-quality one in elementary school math and found there’s not much of a cost. In fact, the data that the authors collected from 19 states indicate that publishers tend to charge all states roughly the same These findings mean that nearly all opportunities for boosting ROI are a matter of choosing the best product, not finding a better price.
  • More rigorous elementary school math curricula can deliver far more ROI than other reforms. In compiling this report, the authors compared the cost-effectiveness ratio for each of six pairs of elementary math curricula that had been subject to a rigorous evaluation sponsored by the U.S. Department of Education. Reviewing these data in light of an influential study by economist Doug Harris, the authors determined that switching to a higher quality curriculum has a huge ROI relative to other educational policies—in large part because curricula cost so little. There are other factors at play, of course, and gains in math, for instance, can be easier to achieve relative to other subjects. But what’s clear is that the average cost-effectiveness ratio of switching curriculum was almost 40 times that of class-size reduction in a well-known randomized experiment.
  • When it comes to math curricula in the early grades, cost does not always equal quality.There is little relationship between the cost and quality of instructional products. Prices do not vary widely across products, with the most expensive product in the same government-sponsored study costing only $13 per student more than the least expensive product. If anything, the higher-quality products tend to cost less, and in some instances, the most expensive curriculum was among the least effective and the least expensive was among the most effective.
  • Policy decisions do not consider rigorous measures of curricula quality. State adoption decisions are often based on limited assessments of quality and weak proxies for alignment to state standards. Furthermore, politics often dominate the discussion over the adoption of textbooks and other instructional material, and issues such as the teaching of evolution are often center stage. There is also a clear gap between the reality of which curricula are effective or aligned to state standards and the curricula that publishers advertise as such.

Bottom line, curriculum matters. For those who see the cultural component of issues like the one faced in Minneapolis, the research supports curriculum adoption as a strategy for advancing student learning. That technocratic view of the world is insufficient though. Culture matters too. The relationship between self and text is important too. Reading is a skill that is enhanced by an experience of connection between what words say, what they mean to a reader, and how they result in greater understanding because of their relevance to the reader.

We should be asking: How is curriculum adopted?

What in the process to support both development of high-quality instructional materials, and materials that affirm the humanity of children who have been historically harmed by Eurocentrism in education?

Answers to those questions might prevent another Minneapolis episode, and make a positive impact on the achievement gap at the same time.