Established to promote voluntary integration, a two-school west metro district finds itself in a desegregation dilemma.
This wasn’t the plan when suburban districts joined with Minneapolis to launch two new state-financed schools for $26.6 million in the name of voluntary integration.
First came the K-12 InterDistrict Downtown School (IDDS), which moved into its airy building on Hennepin Avenue in 1999. FAIR School opened in 2000 in Crystal as a fine-arts magnet.
A stroll through classrooms makes clear that there’s integration happening, but old patterns seem hard to overcome.
Most students coming from suburbs to the downtown school are students of color. With Minneapolis students, they form a student body that’s nearly as dominantly minority as city schools—so much so that IDDS qualifies as “racially isolated” under state desegregation rules.
Meanwhile, whites largely make up the flow of students from Minneapolis to suburban FAIR, making the student population even whiter. “That’s not what we intended,” said Rick Dunn, board chairman of the West Metro Education Program (WMEP).
With the downtown school at 70 percent minority and the FAIR school nearly 70 percent white, the imbalance has reached the point where the 11-district consortium recently hired a consultant to study ways to change that.
One former state desegregation official said he’s not surprised by such results. “That seems to be a pattern that’s happened all over the country,” said Will Antell. “When you try to set up integrated programs, the black kids come back into more of a segregated school, and the white kids leave it. They’re coming back to join their cohorts. . .. It’s really not based on educational opportunities; it’s on being with young people like themselves.”
Schools have selling points
FAIR has the equivalent of seven arts specialists. Arts are infused in core subjects—students may study the Harlem Renaissance in several classes, for example.
Why racial mix varies
Those involved offer various reasons for the racial imbalances. First, the schools have no racial quotas. Then, different factors come into play for each school.
For the downtown school, there’s some evidence that both racial preferences and racial steering contribute to the flow of minority students. When Mitch Trockman was interim WMEP leader, he recalled, some suburban black parents told him “they felt their kids were racially isolated.” Beyond that, some black students from the suburbs show up at the downtown school with brochures given to them by suburban counselors at the point they were expelled.
FAIR students outperform students statewide on state tests, and its black students often outperform their state peers. But the downtown school, with a poverty rate more than twice FAIR’s, lags behind the state.
Dunn said it wasn’t until the district began breaking down these numbers that he realized the racial imbalance between the schools. Hence the study, which will consider options for repositioning the downtown school, perhaps a different focus or different grades.