Three SW elementary schools affected by closing scenarios

Board finalizes proposal to take to the community Oct. 26.

Kenwood or Jefferson and Kenny schools in Southwest could close in Fall 2006 under scenarios released by Minneapolis Board of Education consultants Oct. 12.

Southwest high schools are not affected in the plans, spurred by declining enrollment.

The three scenarios were produced following a summer of crunching numbers and interviewing families.

Consultants and Board members emphasize that the scenarios are only starting points; for example, at a Board discussion Oct. 19, consultant Kevin Halbach floated the idea that Kenny, 5720 Emerson Ave. S., might stay open and absorb a Montessori program now at Armatage school, 2501 W. 56th St.

Board members are scheduled to finalize a closing proposal on Wednesday, Nov. 3, with legally mandated public meetings Nov. 17-18 and a final Board vote Nov. 30. Board member Joseph Erickson said the board also wants to hold less-formal public discussions the week of Oct. 25. (Details were still being finalized as this edition of the Journal went to press; call the district at 668-0230 or see www. mpls.k12.mn.us for details.)

The three scenarios — labeled A, B and C — remain important as the basis for discussion. None would close a Southwest school next school year.

In all three scenarios, Kenny, a K-5, would merge for the 2006-07 school year with Armatage, another K-5.

When the scenarios were released, consultants said the Kenny building would still be used for education, perhaps for district High Five pre-Kindergarten programs.

Also, Bryn Mawr, a K-5 at 252 Upton Ave. S. would absorb Parkview Montessori, now using space in Golden Valley, beginning next school year.

However, in Scenario C — the consultants’ recommendation — Jefferson, a K-8 school at 1200 W. 26th St. would merge with Whittier Community School for the Arts, 2620 Grand Ave. for 2006-07.

Whittier would become a K-8 after the merger.

Scenario B also merges Jefferson with Whittier. It treats Southwest schools the same as Scenario C, but creates fewer new K-8 programs citywide.

In Scenario A — based more strictly on residents’ priorities — Jefferson stays put and absorbs the program at Kenwood, a K-5 at 2013 Penn Ave. S.

Whittier would remain a K-5, while adding programs from other South Minneapolis schools.

Overall, Southwest schools escaped the brunt of the proposed closings. For example, the recommended scenario would close two programs in Southwest, compared to five on the North Side, four in Northeast and five in Southeast Minneapolis.

Jumpstarting closings

The consultants’ reports jumpstart a school-closing process that began this spring.

In February, Interim Supt. David Jennings suggested closing eight schools for 2004-05, including Kenny. After complaints of inadequate public notice and input, the School Board dropped the closings. During the summer and fall, the district spent $140,000 to get public input and consultants’ data.

Gray Hall, LLP and Halleland Health Consulting conducted a Community Engagement Process. The researchers said they held 74 meetings around Minneapolis, wherein more than 1,000 parents, teachers and students identified the values and principles the district should use to make critical decisions.

Using that public input and demographic projections, a Facilities Utilization Planning Team devised the three school-closing scenarios.

Facilities team member Halbach, of KKE Architects, said the principles came from the public, not elected officials. "I had no communication with the School Board about any school or preference at any time," he said. "Our goal was to earn the trust of the public. In this process, the Board was hands-off."

The results surprised Jefferson parents — whose school was not on last spring’s closing list but is now in two scenarios including the recommended one.

Jefferson parent Leslie Foreman has had children at Jefferson for the past six years. She said Jefferson has a strong teaching staff; most have been there for over 10 years and is a place where teachers want to be. She said its other virtue is its strong business partnerships and community ties.

"We have over 600 students," said Foreman, a Wedge resident. "Five years ago, [Jefferson] went from a K-5 to a K-8 program. They have put a lot of energy into developing a strong middle-grades program. Now they are going to close it down and develop a middle-grades program at Whittier? It doesn’t sound like a good use of developmental resources to me."

At the Oct. 19 Board discussion, speakers expressed concern that Whittier — which is scheduled to become a magnet school and the city’s first International Baccalaureate elementary school next year — could absorb Jefferson’s K-8 program.

Kenwood is not affected in the recommended Scenario C, but would be closed in Scenario A.

Anne Hussian’s two children attend the school. She said she cannot understand why the district would consider closing such a viable school whose student population is so balanced socio-economically, racially and by ability.

"I don’t know if the district realizes how much uncertainty among families they really do create," Hussian said. "I think they try to be understanding as they weave their way through this problem-solving, but people build a lot of loyalty to their school and a lot of commitment to it. It’s an area of life where, as a parent, you really want a lot of stability; kids need that."

She added, "People are thinking if the district can’t solve its problems, should we start looking at private schools?"

Meanwhile, at Kenny, parents are more battle-hardened; their school was on the spring shutdown list, and they packed subsequent School Board meetings until closings were postponed.

Kenny resident John Sheehy, who helped lead the earlier protests, said he believes that some schools should close. However, he said Kenny shouldn’t be one of them because it has been a successful school able to deliver high quality education.

"From my perspective, these schools are not closing because it is in the best interest of the school district; they are closing because there is a lack of funding by the state," said Sheehy, who has three daughters at Kenny. "It’s also from a lack of will on behalf of the school district to keep them open.

"For what it offers the community, Kenny should stay open," he said. "As a result of the school, people up and down the block know each other. That’s so important to building communities."

However, Kenny’s fate is far from certain, said Erickson, who is the School Board’s liaison to the facilities consultants.

According to Erickson, consultant Halbach said at the Oct. 19 discussion that a closer look at enrollment data showed needs Southwest four to six more classrooms than exist under the three closing scenarios.

"Burroughs, Barton, Lake Harriet — they’re all full," Erickson said.

Finding space might mean reconfiguring, not closing Kenny. Erickson said Halbach mentioned pairing Armatage and Kenny — similar to the K-2 and 3-8 campuses at Lake Harriet Community School. Kenny parents were exploring that concept even before closing discussions began.

Another idea, Erickson said, would be to move Armatage’s Montessori magnet program to Kenny, and have community-school kids in the Armatage and Kenny areas go to Armatage.

Erickson said that even if Kenny lost its elementary programs, Halbach termed the building "an absolute hold" for the district in case enrollments increase in the future.

"We have continued strong stability in Southwest," Erickson said. "Buildings [such as Kenny’s] can’t be liquidated, and they won’t even be mothballed. They’re going to be ready reserve."

Is it possible that the School Board would flinch from cutting programs, as it did this spring?

No, said Erickson — but he adds that taxpayers shouldn’t expect instant savings when the closing plan is finalized.

"There was this criticism in the community that because the district didn’t close schools [last spring], kids had to hold bake sales to keep programs going. But the estimate was that we would save one-half of 1 percent of our budget this year if we did that closing plan," Erickson said.

"It’s true that in 10 years, if we really get great bids for certain buildings or are able to defer a lot of maintenance, we’ll save money — but it will take a long time to wring these savings out."

Demographic destiny

District officials received confirmation that some buildings must go — because the students certainly are.

Former state demographer Hazel Reinhardt, who analyzed population data, estimated that by 2008, Minneapolis public school enrollment would be 33,400 — compared to 41,043 in 2003.

According to Reinhardt’s numbers, the largest kindergarten class since the 1970s entered in 1995 and is now in 9th grade. This year, 3,798 kids entered the school district, compared to 4,606 in 1995 — a 17 percent drop.

Reinhardt said her projections and the district’s own estimates were remarkably close.

Reinhardt identified several trends that have come together to slash enrollment.

While Minneapolis births had been relatively constant since 1984, surging immigration helped Minneapolis Public Schools enrollment to increase by more than 1,000 kids a year from 1994 to 1996.

After 9/11 in 2001, immigration fell. And right about then, charter schools (which are public but not managed by the district), emerged. Also, a "Choice Is Yours" program made it easier for minority city kids to switch to suburban schools. Overall, enrollment dropped by more than 2,000 in 2001 and 2,800 in 2002.

(Private and home schools were not culprits, Reinhardt noted. In 2002, 3 percent fewer city kids went to private schools than did in 1997 and only 413 students were home-schooled.)

Birth rates will also continue to decline as child-bearing Baby Boomers are replaced by families of the smaller Gen-X group, Reinhardt noted.

"In 1994, the Minneapolis kindergarten, 1st and 2nd grades were about twice the size of the high school classes. In 2003, the largest class in the public schools was the 12th grade. There will be smaller grades from now on," she said.

Reinhardt added that smaller grades aren’t limited to city public schools, noting that 22 school districts within an hour of Minneapolis are closing elementary schools.

Judy Farmer, who has been on the School Board since 1980, has seen this ebb and flow before. She recalled 1982 when a drop to 32,000 students (smaller than projected for 2008) forced the district to close 18 schools, including West High in Southwest.

What’s next

The School Board must now figure out the details. For example, Whittier is scheduled to become a magnet school in 2005-06; if it became a K-8 in 2006-07, would it still become a magnet?

Or: if a school is to be closed for 2006-07, why would any prospective kindergarten parent choose it for next year?

Said Farmer, "It may not make sense to admit anybody new to those schools. Just like when we start new programs with kindergarten, 1st and 2nd grade and then grow it one year at a time, we will consider the opposite with those schools. We may just let them keep the kids they’ve got."

The Board will discuss these issues and more in a strategic plan overview Tuesday, Oct. 26, 4 p.m. at district headquarters, 807 Broadway Ave. NE. The Board will vote on the facilities plan Nov. 30. Public hearings have been tentatively set for Nov. 17 and 18, but times have not yet been set.