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. The curriculum had been updated to expand access to advanced placement courses. The school had a new athletic field, and on the first floor, a radio studio.
But in some phone conversations with potential new families, Friestleben, the principal, sensed deep skepticism.
Friestleben, a mixed-race woman who identifies as Black, knew that her school had its challenges. 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.
“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 one-third of students — some 10,000 children of different races — were assigned to new schools this year.
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, 2 in 5 Black and Latino students in the United States attend schools where more than 90% of students are children of color, while 1 in 5 white students goes to a school where more than 90% 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% white and a bastion of liberalism, with a voting population that supported President Joe Biden by 80 percentage points or more in some areas.
But an up close look at one school, North High, shows the complicated realities of school integration, even in a city with the political willpower to make it happen.
For many Black families, integration never comes up
Since arriving at North High in 2019, 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% Black and nearly 100% 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 Friestleben, who personally greets students at the doors each morning.
“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.”
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 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 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% white, 35% Black, 14% Hispanic and 9% 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.
North High is a reflection of those inequalities.
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% of 11th graders failing proficiency standards.
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.
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.
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.
This, activists and researchers say, is perhaps the most powerful promise of integration: shared resources.
At North High, though, integration was not something that most students and families had been asking for. By and large, they liked their school.
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 Friestleben. Now, the offerings include nine AP courses and new sports. There is even talk about a multimillion-dollar renovation.
Kelly Jackson wants all of this and more for the students.
The president of the parent-teacher association, she has sent all three of her children to North High, including her daughter, Ramiyah, 16.
But Jackson couldn’t help but ask: Why now?
“I feel like they want to start implementing these things because they are getting white students,” 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.
For some new families, attending North High felt like a gamble.
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 is a senior there, and Wulfsberg envisioned her children attending together.
So Wulfsberg appealed the reassignment to North High, citing her son’s attendance at Southwest High, and her daughter’s interest in Japanese. (North High offers one language, Spanish.)
She was also concerned about transportation. 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 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.
The family decided to send Isabella to a suburban school with top academic ratings. Students are about 80% white and about 4% economically disadvantaged.
Ultimately, 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.”
Signs of change: A few new students
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% or more students of color — to 13 from 21.
But North High was not among them. Of 440 students, 30 are white.
“I expected better,” Moore said. “But I am also being pragmatic.”
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. (Officials said the burden was shared proportionally.)
And, critics say, district officials created controversy while not doing enough to truly improve and integrate schools. While some schools grew more diverse, others are expected to become less so.
For years, the district has been a central figure in a lawsuit that accuses the state of allowing school segregation.
A tentative settlement, reached this year, could set the stage for broader change.
The plan is designed to get at the crux of de facto segregation in metropolitan areas: the divide among school districts.
For now, Leah Harp is among the few new white parents at North High. She decided to send her son after touring the school, where she noticed a culture of high expectations and students who seemed happy and relaxed.
The transition has not been flawless.
At PTA meetings, Harp asks questions and makes suggestions. 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.
Jackson explained: This is what we live with every day.
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, she is undeterred.
“We are not going to let anyone else be our validators or invalidators,” she said.