How Southwest schools were saved

After a tense year, all area sites will stay open — but minor attendance-boundary changes are possible

At various points in Minneapolis’ yearlong school-closing saga, Kenny, Jefferson, Emerson and Kenwood schools had targets on their backs.

In the end, however all were left standing.

On Nov. 30, the School Board approved a plan to shutter 17 city schools between now and fall 2006 — but none in Southwest.

The uncertainty for Southwest parents hasn’t completely evaporated. School Board member Joseph Erickson said that closing any city schools would alter community-school attendance boundaries throughout the city.

However, District Facilities Consultant Kevin Halbach predicts that any Southwest boundary changes would be "minor, minor, minor." He said he would make his boundary recommendations by mid-December so the Board can ratify them before January’s school-choice fair for prospective public-school parents.

Saving Southwest

Why were Southwest schools saved? The reasons are profound as higher standards for low-income kids and as mundane as a building’s bathrooms.

In Halbach’s initial plan this summer, Jefferson’s K-8 students were headed in 2007 to Whittier, 2620 Grand Ave.

Problem: Halbach said he had not been told at the time that high-poverty Whittier was to become the city’s first elementary-level International Baccalaureate (IB) program in 2005. IB is considered a challenging academic program.

Erickson said merging Jefferson students two years into the transition would threaten Whittier’s IB accreditation and a $1-million-plus grant.

"We want don’t want to lower the standards for kids in poverty; we want to raise them," Erickson said. "We didn’t want to do anything to hurt that."

Plan B arrived home in the backpacks of kids at Emerson Spanish Immersion School, 1421 Spruce Place. A Nov. 12 note to parents said Emerson would close in 2007, with students moved to Jefferson, 1200 W. 26th St. That plan died 11 days later, after Halbach determined that the merger’s 1,000-plus students would overwhelm Jefferson’s 828-kid capacity.

Halbach said the only way to make the merger work was to limit both schools’ programs, which are popular with Latinos. Erickson said any cap would represent poor planning because Latinos are the "X" factor in enrollment projections.

He explained that some Latino families "are not part of the census data we use to predict the next 10 years, so they create all kinds of uncertainty. And where they live is in the south-central neighborhoods, where Emerson and Jefferson pick a lot of them up. That’s where we need the extra capacity, and it knocked both schools off the [closing] list."

Erickson said Kenwood, a K-5 at 2013 Penn Ave. S., was never recommended to close; however, district officials asked Halbach to consider the school because it is near Emerson and Jefferson.

Halbach said moving Kenwood wouldn’t work because it is a K-5 that feeds kids into Anwatin Middle School, 256 Upton Ave. S. If Kenwood merged with a K-8 such as Jefferson, Anwatin wouldn’t have enough students.

If the district kept Kenwood’s K-5 program intact, the only options were to move it into Jefferson but keep the programs separate — awkward — or eliminate Jefferson’s middle grades.

"That would be the first time we ever went from a K-8 school to a K-5," Halbach noted — precisely opposite the district’s goal to create more K-8s.

Kenny, 5720 Emerson Ave. S., was on an initial closing list this spring and was in Halbach’s first recommendation, but it came off in October when he calculated nearby schools couldn’t absorb its students.

Geographic justice?

Sparing Southwest while closing 17 city schools elsewhere raised questions of fairness. Was an economically and politically advantaged part of Minneapolis wrongly insulated?

Halbach insists the numbers ruled the day. According to projections by former State Demographer Hazel Reinhardt and district officials, Southwest student enrollment is projected to decline from 6,944 in 1999 to 6,004 in 2006. That 14 percent drop may seem like a lot — but not compared to the North Side quadrant (38 percent fewer public-school pupils in the same period), Northeast (down 26 percent) and Southeast (down 27 percent).

OK, so Southwest enrollment is more stable than elsewhere. Still, it’s down 900 students from ’99 to ’06. Surely, that’s enough to justify closing an area school building, or even two?

No, Halbach counters. First, Southwest schools now use more temporary classrooms than elsewhere in the city; emptying those mobile-home spaces will reduce capacity without freeing up brick-and-mortar buildings.

Second, a school physically located in Southwest — Windom, 5821 Wentworth Ave. S. — has a new Spanish Immersion program that is expected to lure several hundred non-Southwest kids in coming years. That will counteract much of the drop in Southwest residents attending area public schools.

Finally, the district plan assumes class sizes will someday shrink back to levels mandated in the most recent school bond referendum. Classes now have up to five more students due mostly to state funding shortfalls; should class sizes fall, Southwest will need as many classrooms as in 1999.

Erickson guesses that even if state per-pupil funding begins to rise, class sizes won’t fall to referendum levels for five years. However, he said, the facilities plan has to work for the long haul, and there should be enough buildings to handle classes as small as Minneapolis voters originally intended.