STEM evolves into STEAM in Mpls Public Schools

Five-year enrollment plan attempts to tailor schools to neighborhoods’ needs 

By Charles Hallman 

Staff Writer

Minneapolis Public Schools Superintendent Bernadeia Johnson said that the former Summatech program will not be part of her new five-year enrollment plan recently approved by the city’s school board.

“We are going to put in a STEM-related program” similar to the Summatech, a math and science program once housed at North High School during the 1980s and 1990s,  said Johnson in a recent MSR interview. She added that she understands the sentiment for the former program, particularly from graduates and other supporters, but Johnson pledged that the district is committed to a program that focuses on math, science and engineering for

Minneapolis Public Schools District Headquarters Photo by Charles Hallman
Minneapolis Public Schools District Headquarters
Photo by Charles Hallman

Minneapolis high school students along the lines of the old Summatech program.

Two MPS schools — Cityview on the North Side and Wilder on the city’s South Side — will be used for the new STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts, and mathematics) program.

Although the MPS superintendent quickly admitted that she doesn’t know everything about Summatech, Johnson said she wants to learn more about it. “What is the Summatech for 2014? What does it look like today, and are there any improvements we can make? I don’t care what they call it. We are going to have a science-focused program, and we would love to have whatever elements Summatech could bring.”

However, she stressed that the program should be easily accessible to all students — Summatech featured a rigorous selection process for students to qualify. Johnson said that she does not favor a similar application process or entrance requirements.

The MPS district is divided into three attendance areas: Area A is mainly located on the North Side; Area B is on the South Side, and Area C is where such schools as Southwest High School are located.

Creating more early education centers, a new STEAM program, a new middle school and a second Institute for Student Achievement (ISA) based on community input at North High School is recommended for Area A. “Aligning existing academic programs” in several Area B schools, as well as expanding all-day kindergarten in Area C schools, also are recommended.

“We’re seeing an increase in enrollment at the kindergarten level across this whole district,” noted Johnson. “We are seeing that we are retaining more families in our schools, and that’s a good thing. It is a different day in Minneapolis.

“What we’ve done is identify specific schools that will be opening and when they will be opening and [what] the program and focus will be,” explained Johnson. “We didn’t limit any choices for any community. What we did is try to think about what those choice programs would be. I think parents will see [they have] more [choices] and be able to understand more of the elementary, middle and high school ‘pathways.’

“…With people staying with us and choosing us, I want to make sure that they continue to do that. And the way to do that is we have the programs that they feel their child needs and deserves to be successful.”

When Johnson first unveiled the five-year enrollment plan, some parents and other community residents reacted strongly that it might adversely affect Black students and limit school choices. She told the MSR that she wanted to look at school enrollment trends “not just from year-to-year but more systemically long-term across a five-year period and predicting what would be the enrollment across the city, but also area-specific.”

Johnson easily recalled the criticism she received after MPS was forced to cancel classes in several schools around the city during the first week of the 2013-14 school year due to the late August heat wave: “It was hot as Hell,” she remembers. “People were very upset with me because we started [school] before Labor Day.”

As a result, she said that capital improvements on school buildings that need air conditioning are among the top priorities of the new five-year, $222-million plan. Johnson also wanted to address how monies are distributed among city schools, another concern many expressed during community meetings.

“That was a huge concern,” noted Johnson. I prioritize schools in Area A that don’t have air conditioning,” noted Johnson. “We choose Area A and the community schools, and we want to make sure that our programs have core programming that other schools have.

“Area B has air conditioning needs as well. It’s about enrollment increases but is also about capital improvements, which means how do we deal with facility needs across the organization. It also has to do with problematic standards and quality.”

There were [also] concerns about equity in programs,” she pointed out, referring to the proposed $40 million addition for Southwest High School. “[The school] expects to have 500 more students in the next couple of years,” said Johnson, adding that she has proposed an estimated $65 million to install air conditioning in schools.

Johnson said, “I’m feeling pumped and upbeat. I’m very committed to changing outcomes for students, and working with people who are interested in doing that.” This includes working with new Minneapolis Mayor Betsy Hodges, with whom Johnson hopes “to establish a schedule and frequency” of regular meetings similar to the monthly meetings she had with outgoing mayor R.T. Rybak.

“I believe that using her influence to help people understand the importance of school and being in school is critical,” said Johnson of the new mayor. “I believe we are heading in the right direction with these short-term strategies and all the elements of [the new district plan]. I want to thank the community for the support of it.”

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