Racial diversity wasn’t an issue in the Osseo school district not long ago. Almost every student was white.
Twenty years ago, students of color—black, American Indian, Asian and Hispanic—numbered less than 7 percent in the northwest suburban district. Last year, that figure was 43 percent.
Osseo and other suburbs far afield from the inner-city St. Paul and Minneapolis school districts now sport a rainbow of skin colors and ethnic backgrounds, a change some accept easily and others don’t.
That may be true, but the demographic transformation hasn’t made Osseo school officials’ jobs any easier. As minority populations rise dramatically in Osseo and other suburbs, school officials are struggling to deal with the same ramifications—widening academic achievement gaps, student poverty and parental backlash—that officials in urban districts began confronting in the 1970s.
Of the metro area’s 894 suburban schools, 114 are schools where a majority of students are nonwhite. And the suburbs are home to 22 segregated elementary schools, an important indicator of the future makeup of school population. In addition, 45 schools are considered “racially identifiable,” a legal definition of segregated under a complex state rule.
Numbers compiled by school districts and collected by the state Department of Education tell the story 10 years ago and now. In 1998 in Richfield, for example, whites held an 86 percent majority but now they number 38 percent. Minority enrollment in Burnsville climbed from 7 percent to 34 percent, in Hopkins from 8 percent to 28 and Bloomington from 7 percent to 36 percent over the last decade.
It’s a similar tale in St. Paul’s suburbs over those 10 years. Students of color in the North St. Paul-Maplewood-Oakdale district increased from less than 5 percent to 31 percent and in Roseville from 9.6 percent to 34 percent.
Further, that diverse student mix will continue to increase statewide, according to government demographers. In Minnesota, between 2005 and 2015, the white population is predicted to swell by a mere 7 percent while non-white populations will grow 35 percent and the Hispanic population will double.
In addition, the institute’s research shows, many metro communities and neighborhoods are segregated by race, a portent of trouble when it comes to integrating schools, said Myron Orfield, executive director of the institute and a law professor, in a 2007 study. Simply put, Orfield said, “we are a white place that is just at the beginning of this happening in the suburbs.”
A generation ago suburban school districts were so homogenous that if you had to shuffle students around to solve school crowding problems, you “just re-drew the boundary lines” with little reaction, recalled Ted Blaesing, recently retired White Bear Lake Schools’ superintendent.
But today, educators need to look at race, socio-economic status and even country of birth in drawing those lines to even out students’ educational needs.
Magnet schools are cropping up around the metro area in an attempt to mix students of various races, ethnic backgrounds and socioeconomic classes. Districts are also setting up other programs to create opportunities for kids to interact with those of different backgrounds.
Osseo: A case study
To save money in the wake of a failed levy effort last year, the [Osseo school] district took actions to cut the budget by $16 million, including relocating a magnet school from the diverse, working-class east side of the district to tony, whiter Maple Grove on the west side. Many west side parents got hot under the collar when they lost their neighborhood school, Weaver Lake, and protested loudly.
Some voted with their feet, transferring children around or outside the district, enabled by the state’s open enrollment law. Only 65 of 484 children who last year attended Weaver Lake stayed as the school transitioned from an 83-percent white neighborhood school to a magnet school with 55 percent white students.
In the process, other districts benefited. This year, Wayzata—an 81-percent-white district—accepted 125 new students from Osseo, mostly elementary-school age.
State school aid to the tune of about $6,000 follows each student, so districts implementing measures parents don’t like—including integration—are penalized.
And there are many supporters of Osseo’s magnet school, including those who like the new Maple Grove location, a larger school and plenty of wiring to accommodate lots of student laptops. The school has attracted about 150 more students to the program, including 50 from outside the district. And there’s “a waiting pool,” said Weaver Principal Gretchen Peel.
Maple Grove parent Mary Ellen DeBois, who is white, sends her three children to Weaver because she likes the math, science and technology focus and inquiry-based teaching methods that gets kids thinking and learning. “My kids come home and they talk endlessly about school,” she said.
But race doesn’t enter their conversations, she said. “My hope for them is that my kids don’t get it,” that they don’t understand “the fuss” last winter about bringing a diverse student body to Weaver Lake, she said. “My husband and I hope we’ve been successful in teaching that the color of skin is no different than the color of hair.”
Worries over behavior problems
Still, many parents calmed their concerns about Weaver Lake by sending their children to Wayzata schools this year.
Other parents worried about classroom behavior problems and vandalism accompanying east side students. DeBois, who’s volunteered regularly at Weaver Lake for years, said she hasn’t seen an increase in behavior problems.
Some parents argue, in suburban districts now and in inner-city schools so many years ago, that if nonwhites and white students have equal resources, it’s OK if their schools are not integrated.
At the grassroots level, in the classroom, Weaver Lake teacher Carol Fischer sees signs of success.
“Notice how well-behaved they are?” said Fischer, pointing to her African-American, Asian and white students. They’re gathered in diverse teams, sitting shoulder to shoulder, intent on charting the growth of monarch butterflies on laptop computers.
For these 9- and 10-year-olds, a compelling science lesson trumps race, she said.