The Failure of Black Academic Achievement in Minneapolis Public Schools

by Shawn Osterhaus |

Minnesota has one of the highest graduation and test score ratings in the country. Many school districts across the state enjoy a rich budget that promises students with a wholesome and enduring education (Bernardo). However, one school district is suffering from just the opposite, and that’s Minneapolis Schools. According to the Center on Reinventing Public Education’s study, black students have the lowest graduation and test score ratings compared to the rest of the state. Over the past few years the problem has been getting worse, and the district is still far from a solution. An important question is why this happening and what are the attempts to fix these problems. Because of all these contributing problems, the academic failure of black students in Minneapolis Schools is due to inconsistent district leadership, unfair discipline and discrimination, and a poor living environment.

Minneapolis Schools have suffered for the past half decade from weak leadership headed by now former superintendent, Dr. Bernadeia Johnson. Johnson has been in the educational field for over twenty years. She was an assistant principal in St. Paul Schools during the 1990s and was a principal at a school in Minneapolis for the following five years. She also held deputy superintendent positions at Memphis and Minneapolis Schools. Johnson has earned a doctorate in education and administration from the University of Minnesota and previously earned a bachelor’s in education and communications. When Johnson became the superintendent of Minneapolis Schools in 2010, she clarified that her main goal was closing the gap between white and black academic achievement (Brandt). Johnson proposed a plan called the “Acceleration 2022 Academic Plan”, which required schools to boost scores for minority students exponentially until 2022. Details included requiring schools to increase test scores by 5 percent for all students, 8 percent for minorities, and boost graduation rates by 10 percent each year. Johnson also vowed to close North High School, located in the middle of one of the poorest crime neighborhoods of Minneapolis, which suffers from poor academic performance. The surrounding community panned the idea. Her most notable program is the Office of Black Male Achievement. The Office of Black Male Achievement has a few goals including, tackling issues and barriers that contribute to the achievement gap, creating opportunities for culturally responsive practices, and deploying gap-closing strategies. Johnson established the office because she wanted to pay special attention to black male students, specifically dealing with their poor performance and racial disparities. The goals are to be more aggressive and speed up the growth of resources and support. This is the only program in the Midwest that specifically targets black males. The program’s budget of $200,000 went towards establishing the department and related programs, along with paying its leader, educator Michael Walker.

Now, Johnson has the qualifications, and her faith in the program is extensive, but the question is: was it successful? At this point the numbers say otherwise. In 2013, a 55 percent gap between blacks and whites existed in reading exam scores. That number is the lowest since 2010 when Johnson first started. The graduation rate is 47 percent, which again is less than it was when she came into power, which was around 49 percent. Add that even though the Office of Black Male Achievement has existed for over eighteen months, there has been little noticeable change for black males, not to mention all blacks throughout the district. (Bernadeia).

Nekima Levy-Pounds is a law professor at the University of St. Thomas. In a Star Tribune blog post, Levy-Pounds further elaborates about the results of the Office of Black Achievement. She explains that Johnson’s $200,000 program has divided only $28.00 per black male student, which, according to Levy-Pounds, many Minneapolis parents consider a slap in the face considering the district’s total budget is over $700,000,000. They feel that the district administration has little care for their black sons attending their schools. Considering the test scores and graduation rates are stagnant, their anger is warranted.

Due to all these problems, Johnson got backed into a corner. Her programs aimed towards blacks were not effective, black test scores did not improve, and the graduation rate fell. What’s clear is that due to Johnson’s lack of strong leadership, black students have suffered, which resulted in her resigning from the superintendent position. One lasting legacy, however, is Johnson’s renovation of the discipline program, which has recently seen changes in how it’s applied.

Discipline and discouragement is another factor in poor black academic achievement in this district. For instance, Shahmar Dennis is a student enrolled in a Minneapolis School who has seen instances of such things. At one point he attended a school board meeting where he described his experience as a black student. He began by saying, “[I was] raised around black men acting immature by swearing, sagging their pants, [and] ditching”. Dennis continues by saying he has had to overcome the many stereotypes given to him because of his skin color. Dennis substantiated his claim by telling a personal experience. He told the board that when he was in 9th grade he asked a teacher if he could sign up for an International Baccalaureate class. The teacher responded by questioning Dennis’ proposal and refused to let him join the class. Because of this, Dennis had to ask another teacher for approval. He finishes by saying this has happened on numerous occasions and he has witnessed others experience it as well. The evidence appears to corroborate his story (Willen).

A 2014 US Department of Education study shared information about Minneapolis Schools’ black discipline. According to the study, “In 2010-11 and 2011-12, black students made up 40 percent of the student enrollment, yet were the subject of 74 percent of the disciplinary incidents, and black students received over 60 percent of the in-school suspensions, over 78 percent of the out-of-school suspensions, and over 69 percent of referrals to law enforcement,” (U. S Ed.). Levy-Pounds gave her thoughts on these numbers. She talks about black boys being arbitrarily kicked out of normal classrooms and put into special education programs. These boys often get harsh penalties for minor infractions, and many end up in police custody. Black students as young as six are thrown into the back of squad cars with their 1st grade peers watching. The study also shows that in nearly every instance black students are given harsher punishments than whites. Because of all this, Levy-Pounds concludes that, “The cumulative effects of unevenly-applied school policies and practices upon black boys have arguably created a racially-hostile environment that makes learning difficult to impossible.”

There have been attempts to curb the discipline and discrimination. Michael Walker runs the afore-mentioned Office of Black Male Student Achievement. He feels that “we need beliefs to change” and has also discovered that black students want to be heard and have a less negative stigma (Willen). Meanwhile, before Johnson left, one of her goals was to reduce suspensions as much as possible. She did that by having her office review all the suspensions of black students. Most times, black students got off with a warning. Many people, including the federal government, said this was unfair to white students. She tried that for the first half of the 2014-15 school year and then resigned. Since her departure, interim superintendent Michael Goar has abandoned Johnson’s idea, and suspensions have nearly doubled since January 2015 (Suspensions). The answer to this problem according to both Walker and Levy-Pounds is support from the community. Walker wants to carry this out by having a new school board and superintendent voted in as well as raising more money for the district (Willen). Levy-Pounds wants the community to tell the school board to put the money in practical places and be given a larger role in the school system. Despite these suggestions, black students, especially boys, are the individuals still suffering. Walking into the hostile environment scares the students, and without support from the teachers and staff, there’s little incentive to do well in their studies, which affects their overall achievement.

A poor and dangerous environment in many parts of Minneapolis has also contributed to poor academic achievements among black students. Minnesota is a white state since they comprise over 85 percent of the population according to the 2010 US Census. Blacks account for 5.2 percent. In Minneapolis, however, blacks comprise almost 20 percent of all residents. A large gap exists in the median household incomes between blacks and whites in Minnesota. The US Census Bureau said that whites have a median income of $61,400 per year while blacks have a median income of $27,000 a year. When this is translated into the poverty rate, the result is a shockingly high 33 percent for all blacks (Wigdahl). Violence is prevalent in Minneapolis where 66 percent of all murder victims are black. The writer of the CLASP study, Rhonda Tsoi-A-Fatt, explains that this murder rate, along with a lack of social and recreational resources has contributed to the dropout rate. Having fear of the surrounding environment translates into the lack of dedication students have in their schoolwork. The connection between these two is that sometimes murder eliminates the male head of household, so many dropouts support their family. Many join gangs or decide that school is not as important as life or death. Tsoi-A-Fatt explains that the drop out rate and danger has helped widen the gap between blacks and whites. Consider that out of a thousand students, 170 whites are considered “gifted and talented”, while blacks garner a meager 60.

Since poverty is so prevalent, parents have trouble giving their children money for field trips or to pay for school supplies. Tsoi-A-Fatt also explains that 26 percent of black students are children of high school dropouts. This is due to peer pressure, lack of motivation, and fear of future possibilities; similar to students today. Because of these issues, many black students do the same as their parents. Since poverty and crime are connected to the poor academic achievement, the answer may be to give great attention to these problems at their roots.

From my personal experience, this can only happen when people within the community come together. Sunday barbecues and neighborhood watches keep the public informed and gives people a voice. Having quality after-school programs and activities keeps students safe from the crime happening around them. The money should be used on three things. First, it should be used on creating an adequate parent-teacher committee that has similar control as the school board. Second, it should be used to attract teachers from the suburbs with higher salaries and use their skills to further black achievement. Last, security needs to be revamped with multiple law enforcement officers in the worst schools, stricter penalties for truant students, and safety training for teachers. On the whole that’s what is missing from the picture.

To be fair, there has been scrutiny about the Center on Reinventing Public Education’s academic study. The study said that over 50 percent of Minneapolis students do not graduate, and only four percent took the ACT or SAT exams. These numbers were shocking to many Minnesota educators, who had trouble believing the results. In other major cities, blacks are far ahead than whites when taking certain classes, while in a poorer city like Gary, Indiana, 90 percent of students graduate in four years. Educators were quick to point out a few flaws in the study. For instance, educators pointed out that without the non-state sponsored charter schools, the graduation rate goes to 54 percent. The same goes with test attempts where the number rises to 12 percent. Further, the study gave college entrance exam results for all students grades 9-12. This is misleading since most students take those exams in their senior year of high school. With the other grades excluded, the attempt rate surges to 72 percent. Now, this sounds as if a huge gap exists. A closer look, however, shows that the numbers are not far off in the study. These numbers still show considerable issues in these schools. It shows that many black students do not graduate; many do not attempt college entry tests; and lack the same results as white students, compared to school districts across the country. As Daniel Sellers says at the end of the article, “Hopefully this report, which compares us to our peers across the country, shows us that it can be better and needs to be better.”

Minneapolis Schools have a major racial problem, and the issues noted in this paper make this clear. Weak leadership, discrimination and poverty are current issues. Maybe some educators are right and it’s not as negative as it looks in the study. For the sake of the students, hopefully the district chooses a superintendent that can listen to concerned citizens and lead the district on the right track.


Works Cited

Bernardo, Richie. “2015’s States with the Best and Worst School Systems.” WalletHub. WalletHub, 2015. Web. 24 Nov. 2015.

Johnson, Bernadeia. “Superintendent Johnson Biography.” Minneapolis Public Schools (n.d.): n. pag. 15 Dec. 2014. Web. 4 Dec. 2015.

Levy-Pounds, Nekima. “The Crisis Facing Black Boys in Minneapolis Public Schools.” Weblog post. Star Tribune. N.p., 4 July 2014. Web. 24 Nov. 2015.

Matos, Alejandro. “Bernadeia Johnson out as Minneapolis Schools Superintendent.” Star Tribune. Star Tribune, 17 Dec. 2014. Web. 28 Nov. 2015.

Matos, Alejandro. “Minneapolis School Suspensions up under New Leadership.” Star Tribune. Star Tribune, 24 May 2015. Web. 4 Dec. 2015.

Matos, Alejandro. “Study of Minneapolis’ High School Graduation Rate Is Questioned.” [Minneapolis] 9 Oct. 2015, Local sec.: n. pag. Star Tribune. 9 Oct. 2015. Web. 15 Nov. 2015.

MPLS. “Office of Black Male Student Achievement.” Weblog post. Minneapolis Public Schools. Minneapolis Public Schools, n.d. Web. 08 Dec. 2015.

Tsoi-A-Fatt, Rhonda. “Focus on Minneapolis.” CLASP (2009): n. pag. Aug. 2009. Web. 15 Nov. 2015.

United States. U.S. Department of Education. U.S. Education Department Reaches Voluntary Resolution Agreement Following Minneapolis Public School District Discipline Investigation. By U.S. Department of Education. Press Office, 20 Nov. 2014. Web. 14 Nov. 2015.

Wigdahl, Heidi. “Census Reveals Drop in MN Black Median Income.” KARE. KARE 11, 17 Sept. 2015. Web. 24 Nov. 2015.

Willen, Liz. “School Districts Respond To Growing Fury Over Police Shootings, Black Male Achievement Gap.” Education Digest 81.3 (2015): 26-29. Academic Search Premier. Web. 16 Nov. 2015.

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