Developers watch as school building empties

Uptown Academy, in the Lehmann Center, to close

THE WEDGE — Uptown Academy, one of several alternative high school programs housed in the Lehmann Center, 1006 W. Lake St., will close after this school year, Minneapolis Public Schools (MPS) officials announced in March.

The decision could play a role in two separate MPS initiatives. One is a broad effort to transform high schools, while the other aims to reduce a shrinking district’s surplus of properties.

Chief Academic Officer Bernadeia Johnson said a new emphasis on drop-out prevention should reduce the need for programs like Uptown Academy, where students behind in credits were put on track for graduation. By closing the program, though, the district advances another agenda: the possible sale of the Lehmann Center, located in the once-hot Uptown real estate market.

Although officially unrelated to district facilities planning, Uptown Academy’s closure may move the district closer to the day it could put the Lehmann Center on the market, acknowledged Chief of Operations Steve Liss.

Academics: a proactive approach

Johnson said high school students who fall behind in one class often face problems in other courses, too. As they lag further behind classmates, they grow discouraged and may drop out, she said.

Several Uptown Academy students who spoke at a March 25 Board of Education meeting described similar experiences. Overcome by distractions in their high schools, they fell behind and were in danger of giving up.

For them, Uptown Academy was a place where supportive teachers and fellow students motivated them to complete their coursework. They urged district officials not to close the program.

Instead, the district will provide additional supports in high schools, so that fewer students need to make up courses, said Associate Superintendent Brenda Cassellius.

“We’re shifting the way we do business,” Cassellius said.

That shift was driven, in part, by research conducted in the Boston and Chicago public schools. Studies there indicated course failure was the “largest indicator” that a student would later drop out, she said.

Next school year, high schools will monitor student performance more closely to catch that kind of red flag.

Cassellius said failing students would appear on a school “hot list” and receive intensive academic support. Schools also would provide opportunities to make up coursework online or in classes before and after school, she added.

District officials planned to help Uptown Academy students transferring back into a traditional high school with a student support team made up of teachers, counselors, a social worker and other staff. Those students also could choose to attend one of the district’s contract alternative schools.

“We don’t ever see the contract alternatives going away,” Cassellius said.

Still, the district plan to redesign its high school system also calls for the introduction of “small specialty schools” over the next few years. These smaller programs within the traditional high schools would serve students with particular needs, such as a sobriety school for students with drug and alcohol problems, Cassellius said.

Johnson described the changes as a “realignment of resources” so that most students will find the help they need within the district’s high schools.

“We really want to catch students early,” she said.

Facilities: a surplus of properties

Uptown Academy wasn’t the only program set to leave the Lehmann Center after this school year. Next fall, Wellstone International High School, a program for recent immigrants, will move into the Roosevelt High School building.

Those departures should get the attention of developers, who City Council Member Ralph Remington (10th Ward) said were already sniffing around the site.

“Some commercial interests have talked to me about having some interest in the site,” Remington said.

Later this spring, those interests should know what, exactly, the district intends to do with the Lehmann Center. That was when Liss planned to present the results of an administrative office space study to the school board. (A separate study, due in early May, examines options for the district’s closed school buildings.)

Quite simply, the district has more office space than it needs spread out among four buildings: district headquarters at 807 Broadway St. NE; the former Webster Open School at 425 5th St. NE; 1250 W. Broadway Ave; and the Lehmann Center, which houses the Adult Basic Education offices.

After considering the expense of operating each building, the report will indicate which building or buildings should continue to house offices. The others will be put on the market, Liss said.

Liss said the Lehmann Center, a sprawling building with two separate towers, was always an awkward space. It might not be the first choice if the district tried to consolidate its office space, he added.

“It certainly hasn’t worked well as a school,” he said. “I haven’t seen any attempt to really map it out as an office building.”

Uptown Association President Thatcher Imboden suggested a developer who purchased the site might raze the building.

“It’s a funky building and, I mean, it’s not in the top condition so it would require a fair amount of renovation,” said Imboden, who also works in finance and development with the Ackerberg Group.

No one was willing to speculate on the value of the land or building for this story, and the property’s tax-exempt status means it has not recently been assessed by Hennepin County.

Still, with its desirable Lake Street location, the site could command “a big price tag,” Imboden said, especially if it was coupled with an adjacent strip mall.

Value is a factor district officials can’t ignore as they complete the administrative space study. Any sale could be used to pay down the district’s large and growing budget deficit.

But it will be some time before a “For Sale” sign pops up on Lake Street. Even if the district opted to sell the Lehmann Center, it would take months to relocate the building’s remaining offices and programs, Liss said.

“I would think if we made a decision even this June that it would be a year before we’d be moving anywhere,” he said.