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South Minneapolis parents are mobilizing against a school district plan that would bunch magnet schools in the center of the city to address racial disparities. They say the proposal would strip several South Side schools of the very programs that make them special and draw families to the district.

Frustrations are swelling as Minneapolis Public Schools leaders mull five blueprints that could reshape the district for years to come. Anxious families showed up en masse to parent-teacher and school board meetings last week to discuss their children's uncertain future. Four of the plans would upend the district's makeup by cutting and relocating magnet schools and redrawing attendance boundaries, which could shuffle nearly two-thirds of the district's 33,000 students to new schools.

Many parents have lamented the potential upheaval and urged the school board to delay its April vote and come up with new options. Eight schools — including Clara Barton, Windom, Dowling and Armatage — would lose their magnet status under these proposals, while five to six community schools would gain such programs.

"The district is saying they want more equity and they want students of color to have more access to programs, but they're not asking the families what they want," said Silvia Ibáñez, a Latina immigrant from the Kingfield neighborhood whose two daughters attend seventh grade at Clara Barton Open School and first grade at Windom Dual Immersion School.

Only two models would make up for cutting Windom's Spanish immersion program by adding one at Green Central. The district would do away with the open magnet entirely, as it would with its urban environmental magnet at Dowling. District leaders say those that lose their magnet status could still apply for specialty school designation but the programs they want shouldn't compete with offerings at magnet schools.

Ibáñez said the changes would devastate her seventh-grader, Amaya, who likes Barton's open school model because it makes her feel "so welcomed and happy." And her first-grader, Camila, would miss Windom's language immersion, which makes kids "really feel proud about their culture."

District leaders drew up plans with a nearly $20 million budget deficit in mind and a desire to stem the flow of students out of the district. There's an increased urgency among leaders to curb declining enrollment and rescue a school system once flush with students.

The district currently has about 14 magnets and spends around $4.6 million transporting students to those schools, which are mostly clustered in the southern part of the city. District data show the current structure has led to more segregated schools, a growing student achievement gap and worse outcomes for schools in north and northeast Minneapolis.

"It's gotten so complicated now that we can't sustain it as a district," said senior academic officer Aimee Fearing. That's why leaders say they want to move the magnets to the center of the city so that everyone, especially families of color, can access them.

Tensions boil over

But the plan is facing mounting pushback as the school board inches toward a final vote. More than 100 people discussed their concerns during a Barton parent-teacher meeting in the school's gymnasium Thursday night. They grilled four school board members who sat before them.

Anger spilled out as parents and teachers voiced their frustrations with the process. Some called the district's listening sessions a "sham," with many noting that district leaders have not returned their repeated phone calls and e-mails.

Barton kindergarten teacher Kristin Sonquist was dismayed that the district might eliminate its last open education magnets — including Marcy Open School — which focus on hands-on studies tailored to a student's learning style and interests. She said the district had several open magnets when she started teaching at Barton 15 years ago.

Others grew emotional at the thought of uprooting their kids from a school they love. Parents of color were not only worried about Barton losing its open magnet status, but also the possibility that it could transition from grades K-8 to K-5. Immigrant families said they prefer K-8 so their kids can attend school together and only move for high school.

"They're 100% against it," said Zeinab Omar, a Barton bilingual educator who spoke on behalf of Somali parents and students at the school. She said many parents have told her they will leave the district for charter schools if the plans are approved.

Help for the North Side

In an interview, school board Chairwoman Kim Ellison stressed that the plans are a "starting point." Any final proposal will account for serious concerns, she said, such as whether other schools will have enough Spanish immersion seats for Windom students who could lose their magnet program.

While not writing off parent criticism, Ellison noted that residents on the city's North Side have been more supportive of — and therefore less vocal about — the plans.

About 80% of schools in north and northeast Minneapolis are operating at about half their student capacity. A majority of students leaving the district are students of color, with more than 50% of them black students.

District leaders hope the restructuring plan will retain students, woo back those who have left and have schools operating at about 70% capacity.

That could keep schools like Pillsbury Elementary, which is at 57% capacity, from shuttering. Erin Clotfelter, who lives in the Waite Park neighborhood, sends her four boys there.

"If we don't see a change, our school is going to close," she said. "We need to have big, disruptive change. And I think we need to find a way to be OK with that."

Parents opposing the plan have said they believe in its mission of giving every student a robust education. If that is true, says Sondra Samuels, Northside Achievement Zone president and CEO, they should be willing to "be in a little pain" to achieve it.

"This is our flood," Samuels said. "Are we going to stand on our side of town and just put up barricades and say, 'We're good over here'? Or are we going to say structurally we've got to change this thing because we're all drowning?"

Ryan Faircloth • 612-673-4234