Community schools, but with less room for anyone else

Southwest space crunch leads to tough choices

LYNNHURST — When requests for seats in Minneapolis Public Schools’ kindergarten classes jumped 16 percent in this spring, the district heralded the good news.

For a district that has struggled with declining enrollment, it was. But for two groups of families in Southwest, it wasn’t.

With Burroughs and Lake Harriet community schools already bursting at the seams, the spike in kindergarten requests — combined with several other trends — forced some difficult decisions.

A small group of families in the East Harriet and Kingfield neighborhoods learned the district had to back out of a long-standing guarantee: choose three schools, and the district will find room for your child in at least one. Not this year.

And with the space crunch unlikely to ease at Burroughs, the district next year will begin to phase out its Native Language Literacy program. The number of Hispanic families — and the impact of their culture on Burroughs — is expected to fade in coming years.

Jim Liston of the district’s student accounting office said the district receives about 400 requests each year for placement in Burroughs, Lake Harriet and Barton Open School — the three most sought-after public elementary schools in Southwest. When this year’s requests jumped to 504, “it caught us a little bit by surprise,” Liston said.

“We had 70 more requests for Burroughs this year than last year,” he said. “You just don’t see that coming, because there was really nothing like it in any of the previous years.”

Chief Academic Officer Bernadeia Johnson said the spike in requests forced the district to consider, maybe sooner than planned, what its community schools will look like in the future.

No guarantee

When Kate Walker moved her family to Minneapolis from Chicago three years ago, she chose the Kingfield neighborhood based on its proximity to some of the city’s best-regarded public schools. It’s the same calculus used in many families’ housing decisions.

Walker said she was “shocked,” then, when her daughter Elenore wasn’t initially placed in her family’s first-, second- or third-choice school, at least not at first. Hers was one of 24 families in East Harriet and Kingfield to get the same news in April.

Director of Student Placement Jackie Turner said families in that open enrollment area select from 14 schools for kindergarten.

“But, of course, what ends up happening is 98 percent of them all end up choosing the same three,” Turner added, meaning Barton, Burroughs and Lake Harriet.

That hadn’t been a problem, really, until now.

Walker’s family lives outside of the guaranteed enrollment areas that extend a few blocks from Burroughs and Lake Harriet, her top two picks for Elenore. That meant her daughter would be considered for those schools only after the siblings of current students and new students from the guaranteed enrollment areas were placed in kindergarten classes.

Turner said requests from both groups were up this year, leaving zero space for open enrollment area families.

“That’s a statistic we haven’t seen before,” she said.

Turner suggested two factors might have driven up school requests. The nearby Edina School District typically siphons-off some Minneapolis students, but this year limited their open enrollment. And families who would have chosen a private education might be considering public schools because of the sluggish economy, she added.

Turner said the district already had placed 10 of the 24 families in Kingfield and East Harriet by May. Some were convinced to consider schools outside their top-three choices.

Walker was lucky. Her third-choice school was Whittier International Elementary School, and eventually the district found room for Elenore in one of its kindergarten classes. Walker said she was happy with the result.

District officials acknowledged that high student test scores and excellent word-of-mouth made Burroughs and Lake Harriet perennial top picks. Johnson said the district’s challenge was to better market the strengths of other Southwest schools, like Whittier, to ease the enrollment pressure on those two.

Culture shift

The growth in demand for Burroughs came at a time when rising transportation costs already had limited enrollment in that school’s Native Language Literacy (NLL) program, Principal Tim Cadotte said.

“It’s like two oncoming trains,” Cadotte said. “At this point, the two trains have collided.”

For the past eight years, Burroughs reserved one of its five kindergarten sections for NLL students. Students in NLL learned math and reading skills from bilingual teachers in their first language — Spanish — gradually integrating with the rest of the student body in the 3rd, 4th and 5th grades.

Those students came from a wider enrollment area, one that stretched into South Minneapolis. But the rising cost of oil — and, in turn, the rising cost of busing those students to Burroughs — led the district to shrink the NLL enrollment area.

Cadotte said enrollment in NLL peaked a few years ago at about 28 percent of the student body, but had fallen to just 17 percent this year.

With fewer students enrolled in NLL and more families from Burrough’s guaranteed enrollment area demanding a place at the school, the district will begin to phase out the program next year, starting with kindergarten.

Pablo Ferreira, who has two children at Burroughs, said the decision was a huge disappointment for Latino families. Ferreira said his children read and write in Spanish, skills that might not have developed in an English-language classroom.

Being bilingual “opens their life” to many possibilities, he said.

Ferreira added the exchange of language and culture went both ways at Burroughs.

“Kids are very curious,” he said. “[They ask], ‘How do you say this word? How do you say that word?’ And they have a chance to learn.”

Cadotte said events like the annual Cinco de Mayo celebration had become a part of the school’s culture. But the loss of the program seemed certain to change that.

“It will be a blow to us that we won’t recover from because it’s an integral part of who we are,” he said. “When you take that [program] away, I mean, it’s truly like losing family.”

Johnson said the district continued to struggle with questions of school diversity.

Community schools reflect their neighborhoods. In Minneapolis, where many neighborhoods remain largely segregated, some community schools in Southwest end up with a majority white population, just as some schools on the North Side are majority African American, she said.

“Who is responsible for having an integrated community?” she asked. “… Does that responsibility rest with the school district only?”