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Schooling Poor Kids in Minneapolis
By John Biewen - Correspondent

Part of The Forgotten Fourteen Million

 
  17-year-old Brian Johnson says his Minneapolis high school was dangerous. He dropped out in 1998.
(click for larger view)
In the new information economy, children in pursuit of their dreams need education like never before. Yet the high school drop-out rate among poor American children is twice that of middle-class kids, and ten times that of wealthy children. In Minneapolis, the majority of public school students are poor, and most are failing standardized tests. A lawsuit over the adequacy of the Minneapolis public schools is prompting a lively debate about how to successfully educate poor children.

MINNEAPOLIS IS NOT one of those cities where the inner-city schools are plainly, visibly, inferior.

"Don't you look pretty today," principal Donna Amann says, stepping from her office into the bustling hallway of West Central Academy. A small girl in a white dress smiles at the compliment. "Have a good day!" Amann adds.

The girl is one of 570 students hurrying toward their classrooms. They'll spend the next 90 minutes immersed in one task: learning to read. And they will do so in handsome surroundings. West Central is one of the Minneapolis's newest public elementary schools. It boasts architectural touches like high Cathedral windows and curved hallways, as well as an up-to-date computer lab. The teachers appear fully-engaged, even passionate.

"One more time!" shouts Ann Cummins-Bogan to a dozen children seated in an oval in her 3rd-grade classroom. She points at a list of words on the chalkboard as she and the children launch into a rapid-fire exchange.

"Glanced," Cummins-Bogan says, pointing at the first word on the list.

"Glanced!" the children reply.

"Wondered."

"Wondered!"

"Imagine."

"Imagine!"

And so on, through "slackening," "anxiously," "jauntily," and "smothered." Cummins-Bogan then leads a discussion of how the words were used in the kids' reading assignment.

"Something else he was imagining," she says, "about a person in his life that went away."

"Oh! His uncle Hawk," says a boy.

"His uncle Hawk. And what was he trying to imagine?"

"What it be like when he climbed the mountain," says the boy, confidently.

Some students and parents will tell you the Minneapolis schools are just fine, thanks. Many middle-class kids of all races excel. A healthy number go off to top universities. Yet over half of the city's 50,000 most of them poor get subpar scores on standardized tests. Two-thirds of black students fail to graduate on time.

"The Minneapolis schools are a comprehensive failure for two-thirds of all students in the entire city school district." says John Shulman, an attorney for the Minneapolis NAACP. In its lawsuit, the group says the state of Minnesota is shirking its responsibility to educate Minneapolis kids. The state sends extra money to the Minneapolis district. But the NAACP says the issue isn't just funding it's a range of housing, transportation and education policies that concentrate poor and minority children in central city schools.

Schools populated overwhelmingly by poor children almost never succeed, and the state knows it, Shulman says.

"We're spending approximately $11,000 per student in the Minneapolis public schools, compared, for example, to about $6,000 or $7,000 in the suburban schools around Minneapolis. Yet the suburban schools have extraordinary success, very very highly ranked nationally, and the city schools are at the very bottom, for kids of color in particular. They do worse than most of the major cities, including Detroit, Cleveland, [and] Oakland, that one associates with problem urban schools."

Most of the 3rd- and 5th-graders at West Central Academy scored below their grade level on reading tests last year, despite the school's use of an intensive reading program, Success For All. The program was developed at Johns Hopkins University specifically for urban schools with lots of kids who need extra help. Susan Schuff, who oversees the program, says West Central fits that description.

 
"I think I would have did a lot better in a school way out [in the suburbs], just because it's not in the innter city, to where there's a lot of negativity brought to school."

- Brian Johnson

"We have 98% free and reduced lunch at this school," Schuff says, using a common indicator of low-income students. "We have a 40% mobility rate, meaning that in any given year, 40% of our children leave. So we have a very high turnover. We have a 100% minority population; it's approximately 80% African American and 20% Latino."

The concentration of poor and minority children is exceptionally high at West Central. But overall, 70% of Minneapolis public school students are racial minorities and two-thirds come from low-income families. The two groups are largely one and the same. Their growth represents dramatic change in this historically prosperous and white city.

Starting in the 1980s, thousands of poor black families moved to Minneapolis from cities like Chicago, along with immigrants from Latin America, Africa, and Southeast Asia. Many middle-class parents white and black put their kids in private schools or moved to suburbs. The result: Minneapolis public school classrooms are now among the most economically and racially segregated in the country.

That makes teaching a tough challenge, says Connie Overhue, a teacher and social worker at West Central Academy. Entire classrooms, she says, are filled with students who show the stress of living in poor, unstable homes.


Evelyn Eubanks, a mother in north Minneapolis, is so disenchanted with the public schools that she teaches her children at home.

Listen to Interview: RealAudio 3.0

 

"One [thing] is, the kids are falling asleep. Literally falling asleep as we're teaching. Or two is, I had one young boy in my class, for example, today, who just started to cry. It's like, 'Are you OK?' And he's like, 'I'll be okay, I'll be okay.' Or you'll see the violence erupt very quickly. Somebody may say something and it's, like, really blown out of proportion almost like an explosion. Again, I think some of what's coming from home is coming into the classroom," Overhue says.

The solution, the NAACP argues, is metropolitan-wide busing to, in effect, sprinkle low-income children throughout the region. The group points to studies showing that disadvantaged kids fare better when they're surrounded by children who are not at risk.

The Minneapolis district is moving in the opposite direction. It has cut back on busing within the city, in favor of neighborhood, or so-called "community," schools. That has further increased the concentration of poor kids in some buildings, but school board member Bill Green points out that policy has strong support among poor parents, many of whom want their kids to attend school close to home.

"Kids of color sitting next to white kids does not necessarily lead to achievement," Green says. "If you don't have a secure home life, and if the parents can't get to the classroom because the transportation system doesn't take a parent in one section of the city to another section of the metropolitan area, it's no use."

School officials and the NAACP do agree on one thing: bad neighborhoods hobble many Minneapolis children.

From Knives to Nunchucks

In the perenially poor Phillips neighborhood of south Minneapolis, Brian Johnson and his girlfriend Tina watch TV in the upstairs bedroom of his mother's house. Their new son sleeps beside them.

 
Brian Johnson says the birth of his son, Brian, Jr., has given him a new sense of purpose.
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"This is my baby," says Brian, a wiry young man with scattered wisps of facial hair. "He's 2 months old. Brian Louis Johnson, Jr."

Brian, Sr. is 18. He dropped out of school in the winter of 1997-98, even though, he says, he usually got B's and C's. He might still be in school if he could have ridden a bus to the suburbs, he says. "Me personally, I think I would have did a lot better in a school way out there just because it's not in the inner city, to where there's a lot of negativity brought to school."

By 'negativity,' Brian means the threat of violence. He's been wounded by gunfire twice in the last two years not in school but rather close to home. The first time was a drive-by shooting in a neighborhood park. He says the shooters were neighbors, getting revenge after Brian and his brother fought with them. Not long after the incident, Brian dropped out. School officials and some students from middle-class homes insist Minneapolis high schools are safe, but Brian says when he went to school, his neighborhood followed.

"Weapons is all in the schools, from knives to nunchucks to all kind of weapons. It's just something scary, something you don't want to be around because you feel uncomfortable. If you get into an argument with this person, will he stab you?"

 
  Sue Johnson has watched her sons turned "hard" by their South Minneapolis neighborhood.
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Brian's mother, Sue Johnson, moved to South Minneapolis from New York City ten years ago, when she was on welfare. She now works at a suburban Minneapolis factory. She says it's been painful to watch her two sons turn "hard."

"They're still good kids, they're not bad kids. They just have a certain attitude that they have to walk with."

She blames the neighborhood.

"If they're seen as weak or show themselves as weak, they'll get beat up every day. They can't even go to the corner store," Johnson says.

Schools are quick to put a "Bad Kid" label on minority children from rough neighborhoods, according to Johnson and some other parents. Some say that in schools filled with such kids and staffed largely by white, middle-class teachers and administrators education soon gives way to behavior control. The NAACP cites examples: one middle school threatened to call police and students charged with theft if they took textbooks home without permission.

"We have children who are being suspended for being verbal! We have children that were being expelled for fighting first offense and you're recommended for an expulsion," says Evelyn Eubanks, an African-American mother of four school-age children. She pulled her kids out of the Minneapolis schools and now teaches them herself at her north Minneapolis home.

"If you have a classroom and you're failing all those students, you need to check yourself," Eubanks says. "And then [to] consistently blame these children! Okay, so they come with problems. . . . But when I saw it applied to my children, who had the ability, the intelligence and the support, I knew there was something wrong with this entire system."

Eubanks argues the Minneapolis are not only too quick to discipline poor and minority children, but also of lowering academic standards in favor of fuzzy, feel-good lessons designed to enhance students' feelings about themselves. "I believe that you do a good job and then you get self esteem," Eubanks says. "I don't believe you ... do a lousy job and get told, 'Oh, it's good, you made an effort.'"

That complaint highlights the conundrum teachers face when confronted with a classroom full of disadvantaged kids. Many poor children do have low self-esteem, educators say, and a disproportionate share misbehave. And yes, some teachers will admit, those problems can get in the way of teaching the multiplication table.

Still, Minneapolis officials deny that they run their schools with the expectation that poor kids will fail.

Success Story

Back at West Central Academy, principal Donna Amman takes me into a reading class for kids with discipline problems. She encourages 13-year-old Eric Berry to read a sentence he wrote using the word 'gruffly.'

"I gruffly yelled at my sister, 'No, you are not gonna drop out of school at the age of 15," Eric reads, haltingly.

"That's good advice," Amann says. (Fictional advice, as it turns out; Eric says he made up the story to create a sentence with dramatic punch.)

In the hall outside Eric's classroom, Principal Amann insists that schools can work wonders with kids like Eric, given time and support.

"You know how proud he was to read to you? A year ago he couldn't read or write. And he's now at about the fifth- or sixth-grade level. I mean, that's a real success story."

And one of many, school officials say. The percentage of Minneapolis 8th-graders passing a state reading test increased by 15 percent over the past two years. And even though most kids kids at West Central score below their grade level in reading and math, a majority showed improvement last year.

The NAACP isn't satisfied. It argues the state must heal poor neighborhoods before it can educate the children who live in them. On that point, school board member Bill Green agrees. To expect schools alone to overcome the crushing burdens carried by some poor children, Green says, is simply asking too much. "If we're going to do what's right for kids, we've got to be willing to push the envelope in terms of solutions. If we want to have a series of policies that result in a concentration of kids of these needs, then what are we prepared to do to assure them of the quality of the education that they deserve?"


The Forgotten Fourteen Million