They killed Kenny

Southwest elementary school targeted to close and merge with nearby Armatage

Kenny Community School, 5720 Emerson Ave. S. celebrated its 50th birthday this year, but on Feb. 10 discovered that it may be its last. That’s when Interim Minneapolis Public Schools (MPS) Superintendent David Jennings announced a proposal to close nine school buildings, including Kenny, at the end of this school year.

Jennings said the move is necessary to address the fourth straight year of budget deficits that will total $20 million next year. If the Board of Education approves the plan Tuesday, Feb. 24, Kenny, a K-5 school, will be closed and merge with another K-5, Armatage Community School, 2501 W. 56th St., for the 2004-05 school year.

With the exception of Kenny, other Southwest schools were spared. No area school’s attendance boundary will change, other than Kenny’s combining with Armatage’s.

Schools in North and Southeast Minneapolis fared the worst; they have lost more kids to private and charter options. "Quite honestly, Southwest is the area of the city where we are losing the fewest students," MPS Student Placement Director Jackie Turner said. "Southwest families are generally happy with the schools."

Kenny parents don’t feel that way right now. Diane Horak, mother of a Kenny 1st-grader, was shocked and angered by the news that a Feb. 24 school board vote — two weeks after the announcement — will decide the fate of her daughter’s school.

"I am like every parent in the public school system in that we want to make the right choices for our children," Horak said. "But the issue that everybody agreed on is that the decision is being made too fast. There is not enough time to ask all the right questions, gather all the research and coordinate a response. Perhaps that is one reason the time frame was picked."

Horak said that no one knows what will become of the $10,000 in foundation money that the school has raised over the past two years, or what will become of Kenny’s 2-year-old, multimillion-dollar media center. "There will be a coordinated response by Kenny parents," she said.

Joan Frank, principal at both Kenny and Armatage, bore the brunt parental anger at a Kenny PTA meeting the day the plan was announced.

"Many parents were ready to hang me," Frank said. "I think the community was concerned as that I was privy to this and that closing Kenny was part of a plan that I helped conspire [with] when I was put here as a principal. There was not a secret plan. I had no idea this was going to happen."

School’s out

Why will Kenny be closed? The district’s criteria included:

 

  • Academic achievement

     

     

  • The building’s age, size and condition

     

     

  • The size of the student body

     

     

  • How many kids lived within a half-mile of the school

     

     

  • Staff experience

     

     

  • Diversity, based on race and income

     

    "We tried to make these recommendations objectively, ignoring the political considerations," said Jennings.

    MPS Executive Director of Public Affairs Cheri Reese said that every school was measured and ranked according to the district’s criteria. There were 15 schools that were considered candidates for closure, including Kenny. Some had a lower ranking than Kenny, and some were higher. The data that influenced the final cut was location and programs such as English Language Learning, Community Education and High Five.

    "It’s a very emotional issue for parents," Reese said. "It’s their school and their kids. But we’ve got reams of data to argue, rationalize and point out why this makes senses in the big picture."

    In the end, Reese said, Kenny was chosen because it was seven-tenths of a mile from Armatage, which has similar programs and demographics. Both schools are underenrolled and currently share a principal.

    Armatage, which celebrated its 50th year last year, is the larger facility due to an expansion five years ago that added classrooms, a media center and a state-of-the-art gymnasium, Franks said. Armatage is one of the only schools in the district that has two gymnasiums. It also has a theater.

    Turner said Kenny’s entire student body should fit into Armatage. She added that the Armatage Montessori program would remain at its current site. The only piece yet determined is the High Five program at Kenny.

    Horak takes issue with the district’s calculations. Currently, there are 387 students at Armatage while Kenny has 345. Years ago, Armatage held as many as 600 students, but that was before class-reduction efforts. Franks said that their maximum enrollment next year would be 550 — 182 fewer slots than the current combined student bodies.

    District officials say the surplus will disappear because it includes High Five and Special Ed programs that can be moved. They also estimate 20 percent of current K-4 students will go elsewhere — above the typical 12-16 percent attrition rate.

    Why now?

    In the past five years, the district has lost 5,500 kids who live in Minneapolis but do not attend its public schools. Instead, their parents or guardians are choosing private schools, charter schools or suburban schools. When students leave the public schools, they take state per-pupil aid with them. According to district documents, 55 percent of the budget shortfall is due to reduced state support for K-12 education — but 45 percent is due to declining enrollment.

    In 2004-05, the district forecasts losing 3,000 more students.

    Said Jennings, "This is about breaking out of the cycle of enrollment declines and budget cuts, which, over the past four years, has cost us a total of over $100 million and repositioning the district so that by the spring of 2005 we are on our way out of the cycle and not just waiting for another budget cut."

    "We have long since passed the point where we are cutting fat. We are down to making some very hard choices. The plan is comprehensive; if you tinker with it, it pretty much falls apart."

    Now that the plan has been submitted, politics may come into play. A public meeting to discuss the closures was held Feb. 18 at Washburn High School, 201 W. 49th St., after the Journal’s deadline. The second meeting is Thursday, Feb. 19, 7 p.m. at North High School, 1500 James Ave. N.

    Minneapolis Board of Education Director Dennis Schapiro, a Linden Hills resident, said he is going to listen to the administration, It was their delegated responsibility to come up with a plan. If the administration hears something from the public that makes them want to tinker with their recommendation, then I would be open to it. But if we vote no, it’s hard to figure out where we start over."

    School Board Chair Sharon Henry-Blythe said Jennings presented a very well-thought-out, objective set of recommendations for the district to consider, but she said it is not a done deal until the board votes on it. She still has questions.

    "I need to know a little bit more help to understand how they got to these decisions," Henry-Blythe said. "I know the criteria that was used, but I need to know why they chose specific schools."

    Henry-Blythe said the tight, two-week time line between proposal and decision is "a legitimate concern for parents."

    The idea of closing schools to make up for the coming budget shortfall was discussed in January when the School Board, Jennings and his staff met at a retreat to discuss future school policy. When the board agreed to consider it, Jennings and his staff went to work. But Henry-Blythe said that the option has been kicked around since early fall of 2003.

    On the other hand, Henry-Blythe said, "We have to pass a balanced budget in June, and principals have to know what their next year budgets are going to be in March as well as the bidding process for teachers. So there are legitimate reasons for this time line."

    Said Frank, "If Kenny closes, then we have to have a transition plan so the children feel welcomed by the Armatage community. It might be a moot point come the 24th, but I can’t wait around; I have to start planning."

    Turner said that a key reason the decision seemed rushed is that school choice cards for students, due Jan. 15, have been collected. Though the school choice lottery is usually done around March 1, parents who chose schools that will be closed will have to resubmit their cards.

    Turner said only families affected by the closings would be allowed to redo their choices.

    "We have to do the lottery based on the schools that are going to be open," Turner said. "If the board votes in favor of the plan on Feb. 24, then the parents who have been affected will get a second chance to resubmit their choices."

    The Student Placement Services Center, 911 W. Broadway Ave. will extend its hours to 7 p.m. to help parents following the Feb. 24 vote.

    No decision has been reached about what will become of the Kenny building should the school close, said Jennings. The Star Tribune has mentioned that Kenny might be used for school administrative offices, but Jennings said no decision has been made.