Posted on December 1, 2021

In Minneapolis Schools, White Families Are Asked to Help Do the Integrating

Sarah Mervosh, New York Times, November 27, 2021

When Mauri Friestleben learned that Minneapolis was rolling out a new school integration plan — and that the school she led, a predominantly Black, low-income high school, would soon include white students from some of the wealthiest neighborhoods in town — she looked around and proudly considered all that her school had to offer.

The hallways at North Community High are a tapestry of blue and white, the school colors, and the mascot, a polar bear, seems to roar around every corner. The curriculum had been updated to expand access to advanced placement courses: U.S. history, physics, art and design. The school had a new athletic field, and on the first floor, a radio studio.

But in some phone conversations with potential new families, Ms. Friestleben, the principal, sensed deep skepticism.

Parents peppered her with questions. Exactly how many A.P. courses did her school offer? Was Spanish the only language option? Would their children be safe walking from the bus? Some even wondered how she had gotten their number and asked her not to call again.

Ms. Friestleben, a mixed-race woman who identifies as Black, knew that her school had its challenges, including a history of struggling enrollment and low test scores. But she was working hard to serve the needs of her students and had little interest in adjusting her focus to woo white families.


Minneapolis, among the most segregated school districts in the country, with one of the widest racial academic gaps, is in the midst of a sweeping plan to overhaul and integrate its schools. And unlike previous desegregation efforts, which typically required children of color to travel to white schools, Minneapolis officials are asking white families to help do the integrating — a newer approach being embraced by a small group of urban districts across the country.

“Everyone wants equity as long as it doesn’t inconvenience them,” said Eric Moore, senior officer for accountability, research and equity for Minneapolis Public Schools, where about a third of students — some 10,000 children of different races — were assigned to new schools this year.

The changes included redrawing school zones, including for North. “This plan is saying, everyone is going to be equally inconvenienced because we need to collectively address the underachievement of our students of color,” Mr. Moore added.


Today, two in five Black and Latino students in the United States attend schools where more than 90 percent of students are children of color, while one in five white students goes to a school where more than 90 percent of students look like them, according to the Century Foundation, a progressive think tank.

If there is anywhere white families might embrace an integration plan, a likely candidate would be Minneapolis, which became the epicenter of the nation’s reckoning with racism after George Floyd’s murder last year. The city is 60 percent white and a bastion of liberalism, with a voting population that supported President Biden by 80 percentage points or more in some areas. In majority white neighborhoods, where homes can sell for $500,000 to $1 million, lawn signs proclaim “Black Lives Matter” and “All Are Welcome Here.”

But an up close look at one school, North High, and the cross section of families who traverse the new attendance zone, shows the complicated realities of school integration, even in a city with the political willpower to make it happen.


The situation is especially stark in Minneapolis, a deeply segregated city. The district of 30,500 students is diverse: about 41 percent white, 35 percent Black, 14 percent Hispanic, 5 percent Asian American and 4 percent Native American.

But white students test four to five grade levels ahead of Black, Hispanic and Native students, and two and a half grade levels ahead of Asian students, making the district’s disparities one of the worst in the country, according to the Educational Opportunity Project. A large gap also exists between poor and nonpoor students.

North High is a reflection of those inequalities.

More than half of 10th graders who completed testing did not meet state standards in reading in 2019, and performance in math was worse, with more than 80 percent of 11th graders failing proficiency standards. About 65 percent of students graduate within four years, compared with 84 percent statewide.

Enrollment has also been a problem. Over the years, many families have disenrolled from Minneapolis Public Schools, including families of color on the north side.

Some chose charter schools. Others went to the suburbs, as part of an unusual option in Minnesota. Families do not need to live in the school district and can enroll elsewhere if they are accepted and provide their own transportation. Statewide, 10 percent of students use this policy.

Facing these cascading challenges, Minneapolis school officials decided on an overhaul. They assigned families to new school zones, redrawing boundaries to take socioeconomic diversity — and as a consequence, racial diversity — into account. North High, for instance, now dips farther south, encapsulating a swath of wealthier, whiter neighborhoods.

The plan also moved magnet schools from whiter neighborhoods to more diverse, centralized locations.


At North High, though, integration was not something that most students and families had been asking for. {snip}


That sentiment was echoed in research by the Black Education Research Collective at Teachers College, Columbia University, which surveyed hundreds of Black families and educators nationally this year.

“Integration never comes up,” said the group’s founding director, Sonya Douglass Horsford. Instead, she said, Black families often express other priorities: “I want my child to be safe. I don’t want them to be harassed. I don’t want them to be discriminated against. I’d like the curriculum to reflect them.”


For white and more affluent parents, the new school plan also landed with a thud.

In southern neighborhoods newly rezoned to North, real estate agents began to hear from families selling their homes. At one point, images circulated on social media of a sign outside a coveted elementary school, where the students, 60 percent white, would eventually be assigned to North.

The sign depicted a tombstone. “R.I.P.,” it read. “This will destroy our community.”

One big challenge for the district was that families could still choose charter or suburban schools. In one part of the new zone, which includes some of the more affluent neighborhoods, just 15 percent of new families assigned to North decided to attend, according to district figures.

Parents evaluating the school at a glance would have seen some concerning statistics: High crime rates in the area, low test scores, a 1 out of 10 rating on

At the same time, the view of places like North is complicated by research that indicates white, advantaged parents may use the number of other white, advantaged families attending as an indicator of school quality. And while test scores are one important measure, they are also closely tied to income and can be imperfect windows into a student’s full experience.


Heather Wulfsberg, who is white, had intended to send her daughter, Isabella, 14, to Southwest High, a racially diverse but majority white public school that is a 10-minute bus ride from their home.

The school offers an international baccalaureate program, as well as Japanese, which Isabella studied in middle school. Isabella’s older brother, 18, is a senior there, and Ms. Wulfsberg envisioned her children attending together, her son helping Isabella navigate freshman year.

So Ms. Wulfsberg appealed the reassignment to North, citing her son’s attendance at Southwest, and her daughter’s interest in Japanese. (North offers one language, Spanish.)

She was also concerned about transportation. There was no direct bus, and Isabella’s commute could take up to 55 minutes. She would also have to walk from the bus stop to school through an area where frequent gun shots are a problem.

But Ms. Wulfsberg, who described herself as a lifelong Democrat, felt there was little room to explore her concerns without being misinterpreted or offending other families. Conversations on a Facebook page for parents turned tense.

One comment, in particular, stuck with her.

“They were like, ‘Your cover is, you want academics for your kids, and underneath this all, you really are racist,’” she recalled. “It’s a very scary feeling to do a self-examination of yourself and think, ‘Am I?’”

She paused, reflecting. “But I don’t believe I am. I really don’t.”

The family decided to send Isabella to a suburban school with top academic ratings. Students are about 80 percent white and about 4 percent economically disadvantaged.

The school, 25 minutes away, has no bus route — Ms. Wulfsberg drives her daughter — and there is no Japanese program. But the school is international baccalaureate certified, offers 29 A.P. courses and has American sign language, which excited Isabella. And Isabella knew at least a few other students there.

Ultimately, Ms. Wulfsberg deemed her daughter’s high school years too high stakes to experiment with. “My motivation,” she said, “is to get the best education I can for my kid and have her launch into the world as successfully as she can.”

Christine Conner, another white mother who considers herself progressive, also wrestled with her choice. When she sent her daughter to a suburban school for similar reasons, she had trouble meeting the eye of a neighbor, who she knew supported sending students to North.

“It was like 25 percent trying to follow your own ideals as a citizen,” she said, “and 75 percent doing what was best for your kid.”