School changes come home

Several neighborhoods feel the brunt of restructuring

Minimize disruption.

That was one goal the School Board set for Minneapolis Public Schools (MPS) administrators this spring when the board’s rejection of a district restructuring plan sent them back to the drawing board.

Superintendent Bill Green in August presented a revised plan to save $8.2 million annually while keeping most students and teachers in their current schools. Nearly one-third of students moved in the spring version of Changing School Options, but just under 20 percent — about 5,790 students — change schools under the plan set for a School Board vote Sept. 22.

Where there was disruption — where program closings or busing changes in fall 2010 will force families into new schools — it was painful. In Bryn Mawr and Armatage, hundreds signed petitions, scores attended a series of town hall meetings and dozens took to the microphones at those meetings to speak their minds.

Cut out of Southwest

Long offered school choices in Southwest, a new system of three district transportation zones instead bundled Bryn Mawr with North and Northeast. Bryn Mawr residents no longer would have priority placement or busing to several Southwest schools — including Southwest High School, currently attended by about 40 neighborhood teens.

Bryn Mawr residents argued they were linked to Southwest not only by parks district and City Council Ward, but also by history. When past local government proposals sought to make Interstate 394 a dividing line, Bryn Mawr always maintained it was part of Southwest, resident Patty Wycoff said.

Changing School Options also would close Anwatin Middle School in the neighborhood, and move Emerson Spanish Immersion Learning Center into the building. Of the two programs co-located with Anwatin, Park View Montessori closes and Bryn Mawr Community School expands from a K-5 to a K-8.

Wycoff, who has a son at the school, said many in Bryn Mawr felt Changing School Options unfairly impacted the neighborhood.

Jill Stever-Zeitlin, an advisor to Green and one architect of the restructuring, placed the changes in the context of a larger effort to balance facilities, school choices and integration across the new transportation zones. Other neighborhoods, too, lost high school choices due to boundary changes and stricter attendance rules, Stever-Zeitlin said.

She said Bryn Mawr and its neighbor to the north, Harrison, made up one district attendance area, but an exception allowed Bryn Mawr students to attend some Southwest schools. Many in majority-white Bryn Mawr did just that, while students in the majority-African-American Harrison neighborhood tended to head north.

Maintaining the exception, or redrawing the transportation boundary around Bryn Mawr, not only upset the balance among transportation zones, it put district planners in the distasteful position of segregating the district, Stever-Zeitlin said.

“We have been reluctant to cut [the attendance area] in half, because we are trying to not intentionally divide attendance areas by racial lines,” she said.

Core of a community

Changing School Options aims to keep students closer to home, limiting busing costs.

Armatage residents who understood that were confused, then, when the district proposed to close their community school program, expanding a co-located Montessori program to the entire school site. Their new community school choice is in Kenny, about 14 blocks away.

Armatage Community and Montessori School parent Nan Carlson said splitting the programs would weaken neighborhood ties.

“[A school] gives you something to rally towards, it gives everybody a common purpose, it gives everybody a common investment to make,” Carlson said.

Responding to Armatage parents at a Sept. 14 town hall meeting on Changing School Options, district officials described it as another instance when one program was sacrificed for the betterment of the district as a whole.

The restructuring would balance magnet school options, like Montessori, across the three new attendance zones. With requests for the program up 50 percent since 2005, the district needed to secure extra seats at Armatage, Deputy Superintendent Bernadeia Johnson explained.

Chief of Operations Steve Liss said, while changes would send some children a further distance to school, Changing School Options meant less busing for the district, as a whole.

Armatage parent Danial Domagala, who said he moved to the neighborhood specifically for the school, also said he remained optimistic the plan could be altered. It was a sentiment shared by many parents.

School Board members can move to amend Changing School Options, and several have discussed the possibility publicly. But district administrators repeatedly have said the plan should be considered as a whole, warning changes would have a domino effect on the plan.


The basics of Changing School Options

Changing School Options aims to cut spending on facilities and transportation, building a stronger financial base to deal with dwindling enrollment and continued budget deficits. Changes for the 2010–2011 school year will free up resources that can be used to improve academics, district leaders say.

— Five schools and two administrative buildings close, reducing the cost of maintaining unused space.

— New attendance rules keep most children in schools closer to home, reducing busing costs.

— Magnet school programs with specialized themes and large attendance areas are cut to 12 from 16, freeing resources to improve the programs at the remaining magnets.

— School offerings are balanced across three new transportation zones.

For more on Changing School Options, including a video describing the plan and answers to frequently asked questions, visit the district website: mpls.k12.mn.us/Changing_School_Options.html.