On the Rebound

Kenny Community School thrives after nearly closing three years ago

Like the “South Park” character with which it shares a name, Kenny Community School has been presumed to be dead or dying on several occasions. And like the cartoon boy, the school has managed to survive despite the odds.

Three years after being on the verge of closing, Kenny Community School in Southwest’s Kenny neighborhood is thriving and developing a niche as an elementary school teaching students about the importance of protecting the environment.

New Principal Susan Dreves-Libson, a 27-year veteran with the Minneapolis Public Schools (MPS), said she’s excited about her work and the level of community involvement at Kenny. Before taking the job at Kenny, she served as principal of Jerry Lind Elementary School in North Minneapolis.

“I’m excited to be here. I’ve never [before] had the good fortune to work with such an involved community. Parents and staff are true partners,” she said during a recent interview.

Despite a lot of positive momentum at the school, the perception lingers that Kenny is a school on its way out. The Minneapolis Board of Education voted to close the school three years ago as part of larger plan to shore up MPS finances, but later, officials decided against it.

Now with Dreves-Libson on board at Kenny as full-time principal, supporters of the school hope the message gets out that the community school is headed for brighter days. Until recently, the school has shared a principal with the nearby Armatage Community and Montessori School.

Craig Vana, associate superintendent of Area C, Southwest-area schools, said that district leaders recognized that the school needed its own leader.

“If Kenny is going to grow, it needed its own principal,” he said.

They saved Kenny

District officials planned to shut down Kenny, along with eight other schools, as part of a plan to plug a hole in the budget (a shortfall of $20 million) three years ago.

Even though the school boasted strong test scores, dedicated staff and active community, Kenny was targeted because of dwindling enrollment. In the mid-1990s, the school had around 500 students. By 2004, enrollment had dropped to 263 students.

As a community school, Kenny draws students from surrounding neighborhoods. Besides competition from nearby schools, redrawn bus routes, the elimination of a preschool program and other factors contributed to the enrollment decline.

In 2004, in the face of intense community opposition to their earlier plan, district officials decided to keep Kenny open.

A building analysis also found that Kenny’s student body was too large to be transferred to Armatage.

Now the school’s enrollment is nearly 300 students. The addition of a new early-childhood program (installed to partially compensate for the loss of another early childhood program and an autism program integrating autistic children into regular classrooms) accounts for the boost in enrollment. Overall, Southwest is the only part of the city where school enrollment is not only stable, but also rising in some cases. The development of charter schools, private schools and families opting for suburban schools have all played major roles in the loss of 10,000 MPS students over the last five years, said School Board Chair Joseph Erickson.

Sustainable resource

Securing a full-time principal is a big victory for those involved in the “Save Kenny” campaign a couple of years ago.

Now Kenny has shifted beyond survival mode. Staffers and families are looking to the future, saying this year is a time for rebuilding.

Jim Sokowlowski, president of the school’s foundation and a Kenny parent, said the tone at the school is upbeat.

“The whole school is abuzz with optimism and excitement for the new year,” he said. “The biggest excitement is for the future, for more kids, strong leadership and additional community ties.”

The school’s Parent Teacher Association (PTA) is currently planning family fun nights to play board games and share their favorite books. It also hosts annual events, including a garden cleanup.

Parents weeded the garden on a weekly basis over the summer, greeted families on the first day of school and hosted a welcome breakfast for faculty. Other volunteers are busy writing grants to supplement state funding.

Laurie Hanzal, a 4th- and 5th-grade teacher of 18 years at Kenny, had high praise for the community school.

“[Kenny is] an important hub for the community,” she said. “It’s a wonderful small school where kids are the number-one priority and the reason that we’re there.”

An environmental focus

Kenny has also started developing a niche among MPS schools with a strong focus on the environment. Proponents say it’s an innovative way to deliver lessons, attract students and save money by having an energy-efficient building.

Darwin Lee, a longtime 4th- and 5th-grade teacher, has been a key player in making the school more environmentally friendly.

He’d like to see the school be outfitted with additional rain gardens, a green roof and compost bins.

“Part of my take is how important it is for kids to learn. They can take these ideas from the schoolyard and bring them home,” he said. “They’re big ideas, but they could actually work.”

The school features an award-winning Japanese garden that spans the front entrance and doubles as a rain garden that catches rainfall before it seeps into sewers, where it would otherwise ultimately send polluted water back into lakes and streams.

Aspects of the garden, decorated with artful handmade mosaics, a wind chime, lantern, bridge and dry rock bed, appeal to all five senses. With native grasses and shrubs.

Additionally, the school’s proximity to Grass Lake and Minnehaha Creek.

Partnerships with the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum in Chanhassen, Lanesboro’s naturally wooded Eagle Bluff, Richfield-based Wood Lake Nature Center among others make it a good fit.

Said Principal Dreves-Libson. “That vision is to become an ecological-environmental school of the future. The garden is just the beginning.”

Anna Pratt can be reached at 436-4391 or [email protected].