How a well-intended project ended in failure
Conclusion of a two-part story
It is often said that the best of intentions can result in miserable failure. Last week, the MSR examined the Community Standards Initiative (CSI), its beginnings, and its eventual failure to meet promised goals. To the best of our knowledge, all involved in the CSI fiasco had the best of intentions, namely to help Minneapolis Public Schools (MPS) African American students be more successful and to help put a serious dent in the longstanding, widely reported achievement gap.
“I was a part of that right from the get-go,” said Minneapolis Federation of Teachers (MFT) President Lynn Nordgren. “It was a great group of people and a wonderful mission, goals and strategies.”
However, according to former MPS superintendent Bernadeia Johnson, CSI “didn’t have the capacity and they didn’t have the know-how, and I didn’t trust they could do it. With good conscience, I couldn’t release any more resources to them.
“They agreed on a set of deliverables that they would do, and I cancelled the contract [in September 2014] because when it came down to what we asked them to do and what they said they could deliver, they couldn’t do it.”
“We got caught up in a whole political firestorm,” stated Nordgren. There was “a lot of misinformation that was being spread.” A series of Star Tribune stories on the program gave the impression that someone, somewhere was up to no good. The MSR found no evidence of such ill intent in its own inquiry into what transpired.
“It was the politics… I have a reputation, and I think that is the problem,” stated CSI founder Al Flowers, who said this was why he lost a nearly $400,000 contract with MPS. “They all were with me, but when the politics came in, I was standing there alone.”
“If somebody does something in our community, all of us are affected,” noted State Sen. Jeff Hayden. “Somehow if something happens to one person in our community, then we all are disapportionally affected. That doesn’t happen in the broader community.”
Hayden quickly pointed out that Flowers’ altercation with the Minneapolis police last summer might have brought unwelcomed scrutiny on CSI. “I do think there is a correlation to that,” said the senator. But others say it was less about politics and more about CSI being largely based on promises and failing to meet the contract expectations.
“CSI as an entity didn’t have the infrastructure,” noted James Burroughs, the MPS diversity and inclusion director who told the MSR that he rejected Flowers’ plan after reviewing it. “It didn’t have the ability to get reports done. I think Al has a good heart in wanting to do good for the kids. It wasn’t anything personal.”
Some have suggested, however, that MPS pushed CSI through due to political “threats” by Minnesota’s only Black state senators, Hayden and Bobby Joe Champion, implying that district funding from the state would be affected if Flowers’ contract wasn’t approved. During a phone interview, Hayden denied these allegations.
“We didn’t threaten [district officials],” said the senator, who added that the two Black legislators are not members of the education appropriations committee. “We didn’t have the power to derail integration money going to the state and to the school districts,” Hayden pointed out. “What was alleged, that we were going to block them from getting funding, that was absolutely, 100 percent false.”
CSI wasn’t “an educational program,” continued Hayden, “but a pilot program to help with [student] behavior in schools. We [he and Champion] had one meeting to see where they were. I wasn’t involved [in CSI].”
Black Advocates for Education wrote an open letter last year criticizing the CSI contract and calling for an outside investigation. “We definitely had concerns about the group [that] didn’t seem to have a strong infrastructure to support the work that needed to be done,” explained Nekima Levy-Pounds, a founding member of the group, in an MSR phone interview. “They didn’t have a website or a phone number.”
The MSR obtained a copy of an October 2014 email sent from the Minneapolis school board to Black Advocates for Education explaining that the contract didn’t require a public bidding process. It’s conceivable that MPS was feeling “strong-armed” and eventually succumbed to “public pressure” in regards to CSI, continued Levy-Pounds.
“It also raises questions on how the district makes decisions on how they reward large contracts, what the criteria are, and what are the outcomes,” Levy-Pounds noted. “The CSI contract is the tip of the iceberg on how people can go to the district and get money, and [the district] has very few outcomes to show for the money that’s been spent.”
“Was it political? It absolutely could have been,” said Minneapolis School Board Member Rebecca Gagnon on CSI, who told the MSR that she was often asked about the program during the final weeks of her reelection campaign last year. “I was caught by surprise that it was cancelled,” she admitted.
“The concerns that I raised [about CSI] were not politically motivated and personal. It was about accountability,” said Levy-Pounds.
“They [MPS] came in and killed it,” stated Flowers on CSI. “We didn’t have the power to stop them.”
While most people still believe a culturally specific program such as CSI is still needed to help Black students be more successful in the Minneapolis Public Schools, this particular attempt seems to have failed as a result of desperate people reaching out for overly ambitious solutions to a problem no one seems to have a good answer for.
“It’s easy to throw money at a program that deals with behavior, but much harder to address the systemic patterns of racism with the [Minneapolis] district playing a role in the abysmal [academic performance] of kids of color,” said Levy-Pounds. “What ultimately is in the best interests of students of color? And [what’s important is] how the district makes decisions about how they are going to spend their resources when it comes to addressing educational issues that impact children of color.
“There are systemic problems in the district that can’t be solved by teaching kids how to act better. That’s a racist narrative,” she pointed out.
“I support that the community needs to be in our schools,” said Gagnon. “We have to work with the community to change some of the cultural climate and behavior of our students in our buildings.”
“We got to do something in the schools,” said Flowers. “It doesn’t have to be me, but it has to be someone from our community. I still think CSI is the right approach by our community.”
Charles Hallman welcomes reader responses to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Related content: What went wrong with CSI?