Category: Blog

Know Who Just Stood up for Gay and Transgender Kids? We Did, Minnesota

Of Texas, Toilets and the State Department of Education’s Transgender Toolkit

 

Sunday night I stepped off a flight from Dallas, pointed myself in the approximate direction of Roseville and–buoyed by the fact that MSP was literally 30 degrees cooler than Texas and the metaphorical temperature difference even bigger—directed a beam of pure gratitude in the direction of the Minnesota Department of Education.

I’ll get to Texas presently, but let’s start with the good news.

Over the vociferous protests of the usual suspects, MDE last week issued a “toolkit” for schools and educators to use in supporting transgender and gender non-conforming students. Eleven pages of advice on everything from pronouns to prom, the document is a tremendous and hopeful thing.

There’s some genius stuff in there. So simple it throws into hard relief the notion that the transgender bathroom wars have absolutely nothing to do with ensuring everyone has a pot to pee in.

Adoption of the guidelines is voluntary—and it’ll take you a nanosecond to predict the state’s largest district will be the last to go there. Still, I’m immensely grateful to live in a state where human rights are advancing. Continue reading

Little Hearing on the Prairie

In Which Minnesota’s Dysfunctional Board of Teaching Retreats—Literally—to a Barn

 

Quick: Can you, without asking Siri, locate Avoca, Minnesota, on a map? You can?

What are you doing on Wednesday, when the state’s troubled Board of Teaching, reputation for being disinterested in public input notwithstanding, plans to meet in a barn in far southwest Minnesota?

You’ll have to get up early if you want to make the 8:30 a.m. “breakfast with stakeholders/legislators.” Avoca is three hours from the Twin Cities and a healthy 20 miles from the nearest motels, which appear to be in Worthington.

I’m sure it’s bucolic. Google Earth hasn’t gotten to Avoca yet, but I imagine it as sort of Martha-Stewart-meets-the-Pizza-Farm-craze-meets-Reanimator. Because the business on the agenda includes beginning to draft the rules that will govern the newly created Professional Educator Licensing and Standards Board.

Yeah, I missed that wrinkle, too: The dysfunctional board that’s going away at the end of the year gets first crack at shaping its successor. Continue reading

If You Can’t Beat ‘em, Co-opt ‘em

With the dust settling, turns out this year’s legislative session might have been a good one for kids

 

You might be forgiven for tuning out as this year’s state Legislature ground its way toward adjournment, adjourned, went back into session, adjourned, went back into session and finally, mercifully, adjourned for good.

I know I did. From reading the headlines it seemed like Minnesota SOP: Incremental gains in both policy and finance that let the electeds from both parties to go back to their districts claiming to have delivered for kids–if nothing transformative.

And so I have been reading and rereading a newly released wrap-up of the session’s finer points put together by EdAllies, a policy advocacy group, with a mixed mind. Because despite the relatively narrow cast of this year’s headlines, it looks like a lot of solid policy got hammered out.

And the DFL governor, who has not been an advocate of many of the policy changes he nonetheless signed into law, got a lot more money for education out of the GOP than looked likely at the start of the year. Which is huge, given that the state has fallen far behind education funding levels of the early 2000s.

So what’s mixed about my mind? More money for kids and good policy should be a slam-dunk, right? And it could be, but if you look at the arenas in which long-sought progress was won you’ll note that many of them are areas where legislatures past have voted in changes only to watch them founder in the quicksand of bureaucratic resistance.

I say we set cynicism aside for a while and see whether the third time’s the charm. Continue reading

Waiting for the Rainbow

The Year Since Orlando Has Brought One Hit After Another—and a Renewed Commitment to Meeting Fear with Celebration

 

A year ago today we woke up to the news that a domestic terrorist had trapped hundreds of people inside a Florida gay club. He gunned some down indiscriminately before stalking others like prey. By the time I saw the headlines, 49 people—virtually all Latinx—had been confirmed dead.

I literally couldn’t get out of bed. A few hours later Barack Obama spoke, decrying the symbolism of a slaughter during Pride: “The place where they were attacked is more than a nightclub,” he said. “It is a place of solidarity and empowerment where people have come together to raise awareness, to speak their minds, and to advocate for their civil rights.”

The mixture of emotions–horror at the scale of the violence and astonishment that, in my lifetime, the president would define a gay bar as a sacred community space—was enough to get me upright at the keyboard. Continue reading

Inconvenient Truths

We Can Greet North High’s Rising Grad Rates with Polar Pride–and Still Ask What Those Diplomas Mean

 

Today in the Continuing Adventures of Minneapolis’ Biggest Buzzkill, we engage in the sad but necessary task of a little graduation-season reality check.

This morning’s Star Tribune carries a heartwarming story about the amazing turnaround at Minneapolis Public Schools’ North High, from which some 50 seniors graduate today. The piece sketches the school’s “comeback” from five years ago, complete with a graph showing the graduation rate’s rise from 44 percent to 82 percent.

Congratulations to those Polars. May their diplomas serve as a formal invitation to bright futures. The world needs bright young people like them more than ever. Let’s agree, as a community, to support them in whatever endeavors come next.

The mellow I feel obliged to harsh? The narrative that has sprung up around the rebirth of the high school—at least as depicted by this city’s newspaper of record—skirts some major potholes. In fact, I’ve been thinking of it all morning as Exhibit A in why, in 2017, regional newspapers need to do like the national ones and realize that public education is not an entry-level, tooth-cutting beat but a hard-edged policy arena in need of watchdogging.

Of the 63 members of the 2017 class who took a state reading exam in 10th grade, seven—or 11 percent—passed. Of the 54 juniors who took the math test the next year, four—or 7.4 percent—passed.

Let’s countersink that nail: Two of 42 North 10th-graders—next year’s presumed grads–last year passed the reading test.

The story takes no note of this. Continue reading

The Big Gay Way to End the School Year

Happy Pride, y’all!

June 1 marks the start of a month-long celebration of LGBT history and culture and of our extraordinary leaps forward in terms of equality in recent years. If what you know of Pride is the rainbow- and glitter-bomb-saturated parades that are the grand finale–great. I hope to see you there; I’ll be the one on the sparklepony wishing she’d brought sunscreen.

In the meantime, let me leave you with this: Pride is an incredibly important month for educators and students. Schools can play a vital role in supporting LGBT youth and in affirming their identity—especially if their understanding of it is still in formation.

In no particular order, then, I offer several opportunities for educators to observe and celebrate:

Feels like home

Know where young people who suspect their families might not embrace their sexual orientation or gender identity can explore in a supportive cocoon? Where there’s hopefully a library full of books where they can see themselves and answer their unvoiced questions—maybe even staffed by a librarian who can create the space for them to browse unobserved? Continue reading

Woodward Avenue

The Other Detroit Comeback Story

A Cross-Section of Education Advocates Set Aside Their Differences to Create a Blueprint for Reshaping the City’s Education Landscape. It Almost Happened.

 

The morning John Rakolta Jr. rode the bus to school with Mrs. Robinson and her two kids it was 7 degrees in Detroit. The four stepped outside the Robinsons’ apartment building exactly at 6:15 a.m. Rakolta’s bodyguard and driver trailed at a discreet distance.

Kids bundled against a wind chill that made the trek even more frigid, they walked to the bus stop and waited. And waited. What time was the bus expected to arrive, Rakolta asked, shivering. 6:50. So why get to the stop half an hour early? Because buses are few and schedules erratic; if the 6:50 came early and they missed it there wouldn’t be another for two hours.

The panoramic windows in Rakolta’s downtown Detroit office look out over the city’s main thoroughfare. Buses go up and down Woodward Avenue, but the reality of relying on them was a rude surprise to him.

The CEO of a privately held company that builds auto assembly plants all over the world, Rakolta’s sideline avocation is race relations. He’d been part of two decades of purposeful efforts to understand his own white privilege and to build relationships between black and white Detroiters. He’s both a conservative and a booster of a black, Democratic city.

John Rakolta Jr.

John Rakolta Jr.

A major fundraiser for the presidential campaigns of Mitt Romney in 2012 and Marco Rubio in 2015, Rakolta was riding the bus with the Robinsons because a few months earlier a friend had asked him to join an effort to create some stability in the city’s crumbling school system, often described as the worst in the nation. Continue reading

VPK, WTF?

When Mark Dayton first ran for governor, I wrote a wonky little story about a new kind of assessment. When a Minneapolis principal I’d interviewed called after it appeared I flinched a little before picking up. Had I double-checked my notes? Had I gotten something wrong?

Nope. Turned out Dayton, who was running in a crowded field of DFLers who all had remarkably similar—and shallow—things to say about K-12 education, had called the principal and asked if he could stop by.

It can’t have been the only impromptu cold-call. Unlike his challengers, Dayton’s stump remarks on education were peppered with real-life examples of needs his policies would address. His vignettes were rich with the kind of detail that suggested he did more listening than flesh-pressing.

With the Legislature headed toward adjournment and a hailstorm of vetoes coming out of the governor’s office, I wonder where that man went. Particularly since his re-election, on education policy Dayton seems increasingly like a guy who is listening to one set of voices: Education Minnesota.

Thursday Dayton vetoed a bill to overhaul the way Minnesota teachers are licensed that had broad, bipartisan support. And he appears willing to go to the mat over his much less popular universal school-based pre-kindergarten plan known in Capitol shorthand as VPK—voluntary Pre-K. Continue reading

The Toothpaste Isn’t Going Back in the Tube

I realize there are some major, major things going wrong in the world right now, but I am on Cloud Nine. A young woman I wrote about last year is being featured on Sheryl Sandberg’s website on resilience. Niante Ricks ended up homeless after coming out to her family, but found an amazing school in New Orleans, where she lives, that took her in and got her to college. Her teachers sent my story to Sandberg, who loved it.
 
The photo on this post is of Niante and a classmate giving their presentation a year and a half ago. Click on the new story to see a new portrait that’s 150 percent poise and confidence.
 
Cute backstory: In New Orleans an unexpected treasure found on the quest for something else is called Lagniappe. Niante wasn’t even the reason I was at Collegiate Academies. I went to write about the schools’ groundbreaking work on discipline and in special ed services for older students. My host, the most excellent Zoey Reed, had arranged for me to see some student presentations, including one advocating overturning a law that says Louisiana teachers may not say anything affirming to students about gays and lesbians.

Continue reading

Minneapolis’ School Board: Hoisted with its Own Petard?

Why I think the New School Board Will Address the Little-i Inequities But Stop at Trying to Solve the Big Ones

 

Ah, how quickly the bloom goes off the rose.

A Minneapolis School Board with a new political majority has been feeling its oats since the first of the year. It didn’t take long for things to get rocky.

In the new board’s most dramatic chapter yet, a couple of weeks ago about 150 community members organized by a faction of the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers showed up to protest what they said were the forced resignations of seven district employees who are people of color. With just Don Samuels voting no, the board supermajority could not move swiftly enough to reverse the decisions.

And so the next week it was forced to convene a special meeting to hear from principals and others who deplored the board’s intercession, insisting that there were more clear-headed ways to make personnel decisions and noting that the board overruled school leaders without so much as requesting information about the cases at hand.

The board insisted it was acting out of a concern for equity. And indeed a pattern of forcing people of color out of jobs in schools, where they are desperately needed, would be a very bad—and sadly not surprising–thing.

But let’s pause, because in short order the universe has served the board an opportunity to address equity on a much larger and more impactful scale. Dollars to doughnuts the new board walks—nay, sprints—away from this one. Continue reading