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In a sea of school choice, a city's schools fight back

But can Minneapolis improve enough to keep more students from jumping ship?

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Kyle Samejima's decision - to send her three children to the local public school here - was an unusual one among her neighbors. But she liked the open-education philosophy of Windom magnet school, liked that it was just a couple of blocks away, liked the diversity.

Now she's helping to spearhead an effort to make Windom even more distinctive, turning it into a dual immersion Spanish school that her youngest child - a kindergartner already bilingual in Japanese - will begin next year. "You can put a label on a school, and if you look at Windom's test scores, they don't look so great," says Ms. Samejima. "But test scores don't always tell the whole story."

Many other Minneapolis parents, though, are looking at the test scores. And with an exceptionally high degree of school choice, they're increasingly choosing options outside the district.

Twelve years after America's first charter school opened in Minnesota, parents in Minneapolis face a daunting smorgasbord of options. In addition to private and parochial options, there are 17 charter schools (with seven more to open in the fall), open enrollment that allows students to hop districts, and a complex system of magnet and neighborhood public schools.

The result is an intriguing case study for communities across the country now considering school choice - an example of both the benefits and the risks of turning the system into a competitive environment.

While many urban districts struggle to retain white, middle-class families, Minneapolis is also losing low-income, minority ones, primarily to charter schools. It's led to an enrollment crisis for the district, which loses state money with each departing student, and now has 800 surplus classrooms. But many observers point out that this is exactly how choice is supposed to work: better options for individual students, and a competitive educational landscape that may, in the end, force all the schools to improve.

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