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Local view: Imbalance between schools demands stronger action

I had the opportunity to work five years for the Duluth public school system as coordinator of the office of education equity, retiring in June 2013. I would like to share some experiences and observations and make some suggestions to improve Duluth public schools in response to an editorial (Our View: “Imbalance between schools demands stronger leadership”) and a commentary (Local View: “Let’s forget the Red Plan and focus on school”), both published on the News Tribune’s July 27 Sunday Opinion cover.

The pieces referred to the Red Plan. I arrived in the district as the Red Plan was being implemented. One of the first challenges I faced was related to student enrollment demographics.

At one point the Red Plan required the closure of Piedmont Elementary School for remodeling and renovation. Students were to be relocated to Lincoln Elementary, which was then to be closed with the reopening of Piedmont. During the one year students were relocated to Lincoln, several upper classes at Lincoln were sent to Morgan Park Middle School. In a nutshell, a racial imbalance was created at Lincoln school for one year. The Minnesota Department of Education wanted a justification of that imbalance, as it was a deviation from the Minnesota rule that defined and prohibited segregation. The explanation provided the state was accepted. There was, however, the admonition that the Department of Education should have been included in the planning process if it was obvious there would be a segregation situation arising as a result of building closures and mergers.

One of the final challenging assignments I had before retirement also had to do with student enrollment demographics. If you recall, Nettleton and Grant elementary schools were to be merged in a renovated and updated building. That school came to be known as Myers-Wilkins Elementary. However, during the time the school was to be renovated, students from Grant Elementary were to attend other elementary schools. Those schools were primarily Nettleton Elementary and Congdon Elementary. Nettleton received the majority of the students. Personnel from the state Department of Education who worked with integration funding noted the change in enrollment demographics at Nettleton and wanted to know how these enrollment demographics were going to be corrected with the opening of Myers-Wilkins. Obviously, Myers-Wilkins was simply a perpetuation of segregation that occurred at Nettleton. The question before the Department of Education was whether to fund Duluth with integration dollars, given the planned segregation at Myers-Wilkins.

This was the solution offered and accepted by the Minnesota Department of Education: First, a shared technology program between Nettleton and Congdon students, which was to provide some intercultural experience for students, would be continued. And second, the Duluth district, Independent School District 709, was to develop a plan for the consideration of redesigning school enrollment boundaries, a plan that was to be shared with the Minnesota Department of Education.

Although integration funding to ISD 709 was decreased by

40 percent as a result of a new statewide funding formula, the remaining money may be in jeopardy now if the plan for boundary reconfiguration is not pursued.

I first arrived in this area of the state in 1978. During my time here I have seen the closures and mergers of more than several schools throughout ISD 709. Each closure and merger has been a painful transition for many parents and students. However, everyone survived. Each merger may have required a reconfiguration of enrollment boundaries. Now, interestingly, to my knowledge, none of those closures and mergers was initiated by the need to address the segregation that has occurred within the district. Consideration of diversity and inclusion through enrollment demographics during merger planning always has been secondary — or, perhaps, tertiary — to fiscal realities.

I believe that at the elementary-school level every parent of every race and socioeconomic status wants their child safe and believes that neighborhood schools are one of the best ways to ensure safety for their children. As a result, there is always resistance to enrollment boundary changes. Mergers and boundary changes also can be painful for staff.

One thing was clear to me after a couple of years working for the school district: Teachers as a group get a bad rap. Teachers are a cross section of the community, and, as with any organization, teachers have their own continuum: from “water walker” on the high end to “slug/shirker” on the low-performing end. Longevity in and of itself is not an indicator of whether a teacher is creative, diligent or effective. One of the most heartening experiences I had while working for the school district was observing the teachers and administrators of Nettleton and Congdon tackling the development of curriculum merger and lesson-plan design afforded by then-new iPad technology.

I think the majority of teachers in the Duluth public schools are smart, dedicated, competent, sincere and underpaid. Given the opportunity for peer review, I believe the group would cull out the low performers.

Certain colleagues would chuckle when I suggested ISD 709 could be a “constellation of excellence in the northern sky.” I know needed changes won’t happen without courage, creativity and willingness. If the citizens of Duluth want stronger leadership in ISD 709, they need to get involved.

Ron Hagland of Cloquet retired last summer from the Duluth public schools.