Mayors' Forum format expanded, participants discuss education reform

By Matt Day

The Macalester Mayors’ Forum, one of the college’s longest-running conferences, held one of its most ambitious programs in the history of the series Feb. 20-22.Almost 200 educators, academic and philanthropic foundation members and state and local policy-makers came to campus to attend panels and lectures on educational policy over the three-day series.

The Geography department, and the Urban Studies concentration in particular, have a long history of active involvement in the community, Urban Studies professor George Latimer said.

“It’s essential for students to have a lot of hands-on work,” Latimer said. “It’s great to have engagement with the community.”

The Forum, which was first held in 1985 during Latimer’s tenure as mayor of St. Paul, was originally a series of one-night lectures. Latimer and Urban Studies and Geography professor David Lanegran brought five mayors to campus to discuss “urban issues.”

The forum’s topic was narrowed in later years to cover more specific themes.

Latimer said that the forum was expanded this year because of the unique importance of education, this year’s theme. This year’s event included six panel discussions, three workshops and a half dozen other lectures and facilitated discussions, with the goal of sharing and developing ideas about improving the Minnesota education system.

St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman spoke at the opening session following brief remarks by President Brian Rosenberg. Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak introduced the keynote speaker, Paul Grogan of the Boston Foundation, at the forum’s wrap-up lecture Feb. 22.

“I was a bit too ambitious,” Latimer said, noting that attendance of the events was below what he had expected.

According to the forum’s program, the event was designed to examine the successes and failures of early childhood and kindergarten through high school education, as well as “cultural competence in engagement with immigrant, ethnic and low-income communities.”

“This would be an attempt to have a conversation,” Latimer said of the forum, “an exchange between metro people and people from greater Minnesota.

“My invitation was not to spend a lot of time ‘admiring the problem,’ but [to] look at those best practices that seem to work.”

Latimer stressed that student involvement was key to putting the event together. He approached three students in August offering the opportunity to help plan the event and earn internship credit in the process.

Kate Bristol ’08, Victoria Harris ’09 and Elissa Vinnik ’08 worked 10 hours each week during the fall and spring semesters preparing for the event. Paul Singh ’05 was brought on as a program coordinator.

Harris said none of the students had any event-planning expertise.

“It was a different experience,” she said. “I didn’t know what to expect.”

Harris, a Geography major concentrating in Urban Studies, said she liked the amount of flexibility and authority that Latimer delegates to students.

“He likes a lot more self direction than other professors,” she said. “He likes to see what students can come up with.”

Latimer said he will spend the next few months working to synthesize the topics discussed during the forum.

“We’ll have to make a judgment on whether there’s a core of lessons learned to lead to publication,” he said.

Latimer said that if there is consensus on a recommended educational policy, he’ll invite some of this year’s participants back to campus in the fall for a session to draft a proposal for the Minnesota Legislature.

Harris, the only student organizer who won’t be graduating in the spring, says she will likely stay involved with the forum.

For now, however, Harris is content with just being done with this spring’s forum.

“We’re taking a break,” she said. “I slept all weekend.