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

MINNEAPOLIS — 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.

“At times,” she said, “it was demeaning and humiliating.”

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.

Mauri Friestleben, the principal of North Community High, in her office. The school’s mascot is a polar bear.Credit…Andrea Ellen Reed for The New York Times

“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.

Research shows that de facto school segregation is one major reason that America’s education system is so unequal, and that racially and socioeconomically diverse schools can benefit all students.

But decades after Brown v. Board of Education, the dream of integration has remained just that — a dream.

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.

For students, parents and educators, the push to integrate was not just a policy decision, but a deeply personal challenge: What would white families do, when forced to wrestle with their own progressive values? Would the plan bring positive changes for Black families at North High, or as some feared, would they lose claim over the school that they loved?

What does the promise of school integration look like today?

For Many Black Families, ‘Integration Never Comes Up’

Since arriving at North High in 2019, Ms. Friestleben had not thought much about integration.

Her philosophy was grounded in affirming the students who already walked her halls: children from mostly low-income and working-class backgrounds; about 90 percent Black and nearly 100 percent students of color.

“I make a commitment that every child that walks into any doors that I’m leading, that they will feel like royalty,” said Ms. Friestleben, who personally greets students at the doors each morning. At 8:30 a.m., she delivers announcements, reminding students that they are brave, beautiful, strong and loved.

The student population at North High has traditionally been about 90 percent Black and nearly 100 percent students of color. Under the new plan, more white families were assigned as part of the freshman class. Credit…Andrea Ellen Reed for The New York Times

“As a society,” she added, “we have subconsciously rolled the red carpet out for white children for generations upon generations. So it’s my challenge and my honor to do that for Black children, to give Black children the same experience of, ‘you are the center of my world.’”

Research has shown that integration can deliver benefits for all children.

For example, Black children exposed to desegregation after Brown v. Board of Education experienced higher educational achievement, higher annual earnings as adults, a lower likelihood of incarceration and better health outcomes, according to longitudinal work by the economist Rucker Johnson of the University of California, Berkeley. The gains came at no cost to the educational achievement of white students.

Other research has documented how racially and economically diverse schools can benefit all students, including white children, by reducing biases and promoting skills like critical thinking.

Racially segregated schools, on the other hand, are associated with larger gaps in student performance, because they tend to concentrate students of color in high poverty environments, according to a recent paper analyzing all public school districts.

“There is not a single school district in the U.S. that is even moderately segregated that does not have a large achievement gap,” said Sean Reardon, the lead author on the paper and the director of the Educational Opportunity Project at Stanford University.

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 and 9 percent Asian or 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.

Students at North High study the Civil War in an advanced placement history class. The school offers nine A.P. courses.Credit…Andrea Ellen Reed for The New York Times

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.

The changes were projected to minimize high poverty and highly segregated schools, while redistributing resources. For example, district officials say $11 million in transportation savings annually was reinvested to pay for elementary school literacy coaches, music for fifth graders and other services. At North High, the changes are intended to bring more students — and more funding.

This, activists and researchers say, is perhaps the most powerful promise of integration: shared resources.

“I don’t think a Black kid sitting next to a white kid means that all of a sudden a Black kid is going to have higher academic outcomes,” said Khulia Pringle, a local education activist who is Black. She said she was initially skeptical of the plan but was persuaded, in part, because of what she saw as an investment in communities of color.

“It’s the reality that wherever white people are comes with resources,” she said.

At North High, though, integration was not something that most students and families had been asking for. By and large, they liked their school, which is known for serving multiple generations of north side families. At football games, fans wear sweatshirts that say “Polar for Life.”

A coach speaks to the North High football team. The school’s athletic field was recently upgraded. Credit…Andrea Ellen Reed for The New York Times

“North High is the pride of north side,” said Lynne Crockett, a 1962 graduate and president of the alumni association, who keeps two polar bear stuffed animals on display in her living room. Ms. Crockett, who is Black, is among those who worry that the changes could threaten North High’s identity.

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.”

What families at North High have long wanted is more investment.

The school’s sprawling, brick building is decades old. There have been reports of rodents and problems with the drinking water. Low enrollment led to cutbacks, and at one point, threatened closure.

But in recent years, there have been positive changes.

The school has a dynamic principal in Ms. Friestleben, who is working hard to boost enrollment. Now, the offerings include nine advanced placement courses and new sports, including soccer. There is even talk about a multimillion dollar renovation; architectural renderings show a trim quad and soaring windows.

Kelly Jackson wants all of this and more for the students.

The president of the parent-teacher association and a frequent presence at the school who is known as “Mama Jackson,” she has sent all three of her children to North, including her daughter, Ramiyah, 16, who is busy taking A.P. classes in English and U.S. history, acting as a football team manager and serving on the student council.

Kelly Jackson, president of the parent-teacher association, and her daughter, Ramiyah, 16, handed out drinks to North High football players during a game in October.Credit…Andrea Ellen Reed for The New York Times

But Ms. Jackson couldn’t help but ask: Why now?

To her, some changes, like the planned renovation, signaled gentrification. Even as North High opened up to white families, some Black families, like hers, were reassigned to a different school, though North’s low enrollment meant that, for now, they could apply to stay.

“I feel like they want to start implementing these things because they are getting white students,” Ms. Jackson said. “A lot of white families, when they say it, they fight for it, they want it, and they get it. But why does it take us 15 years?”

To Attend or Not: White Families Face a Decision

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 GreatSchools.org.

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.

“We aren’t as bad as people make us seem,” said Alexandria McNeill, a 17-year-old senior at North, who is Black. Through the rezoning, she said she hoped other families would come to view her community more like she did: a place of home and belonging, a launching pad for college, and what she hopes will be a career in communications.

But for some new families, attending North felt like a gamble.

Heather Wulfsberg and her daughter, Isabella Wulfsberg, outside of Minnetonka High School, where Isabella is a freshman. “My motivation is to get the best education I can for my kid,” Ms. Wulfsberg said.Credit…Andrea Ellen Reed for The New York Times

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.”

Signs of Change: A Few New Students, and Lacrosse

By the start of the school year, Minneapolis had moved closer to its ambitions: It decreased the number of racially isolated schools — defined by the district as 86 percent or more students of color — to 13 from 21.

But North High was not among them. Of 440 students, 30 are white.

Still, 13 of the white students — nearly half — are in the freshman class, the cohort affected by the new boundary. Overall, the school serves 93 percent students of color, down from 98 percent.

North High employees greet students with a fist bump as they arrive for school in the morning. In the future, district officials project North High could become 70 percent students of color and 30 percent white.Credit…Andrea Ellen Reed for The New York Times

“I expected better,” Mr. Moore, the district official said. “But I am also being pragmatic.” The changes came during a pandemic, and he hopes to see more buy-in over time. The long-term projection for North is 70 percent students of color and 30 percent white.

The plan has no shortage of critics. Some have argued that the district did not really put the onus on white families, and that most students forced to change schools were children of color, disrupting their lives further amid a traumatic pandemic. (Officials said the burden was shared proportionally.)

Another criticism is that the district bungled communication, alienating families.

And, critics say, district officials created controversy while not doing enough to truly improve and integrate schools. While some schools grew more diverse, others, like Southwest, are expected to become less so.

“They are not heroes,” said Myron Orfield, a civil rights professor at the University of Minnesota Law School, who criticized the district for doing too little, too late.

For years, the district has been a central figure in lawsuit that accuses the state of allowing school segregation, including in Minneapolis.

A tentative settlement, reached this year, could set the stage for broader change. The agreement would loop in suburban districts, which tend to be whiter and wealthier, and some of those districts would be required to work with districts like Minneapolis on a regional integration plan. Wealthier districts would accept disadvantaged students and vice versa, and the state would pay for transportation. The agreement would also create magnet schools to draw diverse students together.

The plan is designed to get at the crux of de facto segregation in metropolitan areas: the divide among school districts, including between cities and the suburbs.

“To really have a viable long-term plan, you need a metropolitan approach,” said Mr. Orfield, who has served as a volunteer witness for the plaintiffs.

For now, Leah Harp is among the few new white parents at North. She decided to send her son after touring the school, where she noticed clean hallways, a culture of high expectations and students who seemed happy and relaxed.

“It’s like a family,” she said. “That’s the kind of environment that I want for my children.”

She thought her son, a freshman, and eventually, his younger brother, would benefit from being around children of other backgrounds. She did share concerns about crime in the neighborhood, but has been driving her son back and forth. While at school, he’s quite safe, she believes.

The transition has not been flawless.

Leah Harp displays a North High lawn sign outside her home in southern Minneapolis. She is one of a few new white parents to enroll their children at North.Credit…Andrea Ellen Reed for The New York Times

At P.T.A. meetings, where she was elected treasurer, Ms. Harp asks questions (Do parents typically do anything at the school for Halloween?) and makes suggestions (Should they hold a voter-registration drive?).She’s wary of overstepping and tries to stay quiet more than is natural for her.

Still, she can’t help but speak up sometimes, like after a shooting near the school this fall. She wondered why the district hadn’t contacted parents directly.

The P.T.A. president, Ms. Jackson, explained: This is what we live with every day.

Almost three months into the school year, integration at North High remains a slow, tentative dance.

In south Minneapolis, Ms. Harp has a blue and white “Polar” lawn sign outside her Tudor-style home. It is the only one she knows of in her area.

To the north, some, like Ms. Crockett, of the alumni association, are on the lookout for signs of gentrification. She described the addition of lacrosse — popular among affluent, white families — as a red flag.

And Ms. Friestleben remains focused on what has been her goal all along: building a school that centers and uplifts children of color.

If white families want to be a part of that environment, they are welcome, she said. But if they cannot see all that she sees in her school — teenagers laughing and fist bumping, advanced classes filled with students of color — she is undeterred.

“We are not going to let anyone else be our validators or invalidators,” she said.

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