Community engagement is vital to save our failing children

By Alfred Flowers
Guest Commentator

Our community is in crisis, and it is time for everyone to know. It is time for everyone to realize that the systems and institutions that have been created for our benefit are failing to deliver on their promises to us.

It is time to shine a very bright light on the very real problems we face, and the brightest light needs to be shined on how our children are being educated in Minneapolis. The facts are indisputable:

• Our children are not being served well in the Minneapolis Public Schools system. Nearly 75 percent of African American students are not meeting academic standards in math, and two out of three are coming up short in reading. The district claims a goal of “every child college-ready,” but that seems unlikely when our children are failing to master even the most basic skills.

• The graduation rate for students of color is beyond troubling. It is abysmal. How much potential and how many gifts to the community are lost when less than one out of three African American boys finishes high school in Minneapolis with a diploma? How can our community be expected to meet the challenges of the 21st century when so many of our children reach adulthood lacking the skills and competencies needed to be successful citizens?

• The achievement gap between White students and students of color in Minneapolis is among the highest in the nation, and this disturbing racial inequity has changed little over the past several years.

• At a time when the district should be considering new, creative and innovative ways to educate children who are struggling to succeed, their commitment to families and neighborhoods in North Minneapolis has waned. Abandoning the community by closing district schools and promoting the development of even more charter schools with limited public accountability will not serve our children well in the future.

• African American children are disproportionately identified as having behavioral disabilities, and are being educated in settings that fail to meet the standard of free, appropriate and public education that the law requires. Special education should be a way to provide opportunities for children who are struggling in very specific ways. It shouldn’t be used as a way to isolate students the district doesn’t know how to serve.

What makes this unacceptably disturbing is that the Minneapolis School District is failing to utilize the tools and the resources it has available to reverse these tragic trends. Instead of recognizing that the old ways of educating children that worked well when Minneapolis was almost exclusively White no longer work for a community that has become incredibly diverse, the district continues to assume that it is has an institutional monopoly on the wisdom and knowledge needed to serve our kids. They seem to believe that they know what is best for our community, and that might be palatable if the results were good.

But our kids are failing, and the future of our community is being threatened in very painful ways. Our children deserve better, and we must demand more for them.

The district must accept the fact that educating our children means that they must involve us in the process. All their talk and shallow rhetoric about parent involvement and community engagement means nothing if they refuse to commit resources and support to efforts that are designed to truly empower the community to meet the needs of children.

We want more than just services for our kids — we want solutions. Effective, long-term, sustainable solutions to the problems we face must come from us.

We deserve the opportunity to work together for what’s right, and it’s time for the Minneapolis Public Schools District to join us in this critical effort. And its time for them to recognize our right to provide more than just input to district staff. We have the right to design, implement and lead programs that impact our community.

All we are asking for is the right to be deeply involved in educating our children for the future, a right that the Minneapolis Public Schools District has failed to acknowledge. Again, the facts are indisputable:

• The district has virtually eliminated the Community-Based Organization (CBO) program that provided small sums of money to organizations struggling to help kids learn. This loss of resources has harmed the very organizations that should be strengthened and supported in a comprehensive effort to reach our children.

• For years, the district engaged in a marginal effort to provide Supplemental Educational Services (SES) to children who were struggling in school. From the beginning of the federally mandated program, the district failed to enroll enough children to spend the money they were required to set aside for tutoring services.

• Instead of expanding their outreach efforts or looking for other ways to serve kids who were failing in school, the district reallocated unspent SES money back into schools and for purposes other than tutoring. They did this without following the process that is required under the No Child Left Behind Act and without consulting the community.

• In the 2010-11 school year, the district announced that they would cap SES enrollment at approximately 2,000 students, and that if demand for services exceeded this cap, students would be placed on a waiting list. The district set a limit on the number of students it would serve despite the fact that their own report to the Minnesota Department of Education promised that they would use roll-over dollars from previous years to pay for services that exceeded the minimum amount required.

• As a result, nearly 2,000 students are waiting to receive the services they need. Two thousand students continue to struggle and face a less promising future than they might have if they had access to the opportunities that could offer them hope for success.

The resources are there, but the district has refused to give priority to solutions that empower the community and engage us all in the process. A senior staff member of the Minneapolis Public Schools announced at a community meeting that the district has the money needed to provide expanded tutoring services to children, and the district has a fund balance that significantly exceeds $100 million. The resources are there, but the willingness to share power with our community continues to be absent.

We have struggled too hard and too long for the freedom, equality and opportunity that we deserve. We know that we have the resources, assets and strengths in our own community to make a significant difference in the education of our children. We have the passion and the commitment to care for our children and to make sure that they receive the very best that the community can offer.

We refuse to allow our children to be condemned to the second-class citizenship that a third-rate education will provide. We’ve been quiet for too long, and that will change. We ask for nothing more than what our children are legally and morally entitled to, but we will settle for nothing less than what they deserve.

Alfred Flowers is president of the African American Community Alliance.