Making the switch a year early

A year ahead of school changes, Kingfield families are joining Lyndale

KINGFIELD — Jane Onsrud used to think all three of her children would attend Lake Harriet Community School through the eighth grade.

Changing School Options upended that assumption. Approved by the School Board in September, the district restructuring plan will shift thousands of Minneapolis Public Schools students into new schools next fall — a side effect of efforts to cut costs on school buildings and busing.

The difference for Onsrud, though, is she opted to make the change early, enrolling her two youngest at Lyndale Community School this year. Seven other former Lake Harriet families, with about 14 students total, joined them.

“We felt like it might be good to have some people go and kind of build a bridge, to show that we value Lyndale as it is now,” Onsrud said.

In 2010 Lyndale becomes the designated community school in Kingfield, where Onsrud lives, and East Harriet, even though few families from those neighborhoods attend the school now. Some say they didn’t even know the school existed until recently.

The neighborhoods used to exist in a so-called open area. With no designated community school, families instead bused students to more than a dozen different schools all over Southwest.

Changing School Options gives every neighborhood a community school and closes open areas — a major driver of district busing costs. But setting those new community school boundaries was a contentious process, as much in Kingfield and East Harriet as anywhere in the district.

Parents questioned whether Lyndale could handle the influx of new students. They pushed the district to consider a dual-campus solution, combining two neighborhood schools.

When some of those same parents decided to embrace the district’s decision, School Board Member Pam Costain praised their willingness “to heal the wounds of a bitter six months.”

The ‘best-kept secret’

Becky Dankowski of Kingfield is one of the new Lyndale parents who only recently realized the school existed. Parents’ school choices are often shaped by word-of-mouth — what they hear on their block or at the playground — and few parents in Dankowski’s neighborhood were talking about Lyndale, she said.

“Everybody in this neighborhood goes to Burroughs, Barton (or) Lake Harriet,” she said.

It didn’t help Lyndale’s image that it struggled on one of the most visible measures of student achievement: the state math and reading tests required under the federal No Child Left Behind law, the results of which are widely reported.

Lyndale missed Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) goals four of the past seven years. But that measure is controversial, in part because it fails to capture student growth from year to year.

Lyndale’s student population has a high percentage of students with limited English proficiency (56 percent in 2008–2009) and students eligible for free and reduced price lunch (90 percent), an indicator of low household income. Both factors are associated with lower scores on state tests, David Heistad, the district’s chief researcher, said.

Even while Lyndale fell below the ever-rising bar for student achievement on the latest round of tests, its students moved toward that bar faster than almost anywhere in the district. Students at Lyndale have among the highest year-to-year academic growth in Minneapolis, Heistad said.

Last year, he added, there was faster student growth in one Lyndale kindergarten classroom than any other kindergarten classroom in the district.

Lyndale Parent Teacher Organization President Elizabeth Short said she and other parents have long thought of their school as “the best-kept secret in the district.”

Change coming

Short said it wasn’t just the academics she prized, but also Lyndale’s diverse and welcoming school culture. The high numbers of English-language learners reflect a high number of immigrant families; the school also hosts a large special education program.

“It’s a very welcoming place that works hard … to respect every family,” she said.

The challenge in coming years will be to maintain that culture as the school, inevitably, changes, she added.

In Changing School Options planning documents prepared by the district, it was estimated about one-third to more than half of Lyndale students could be new to the school in 2010.

Principal Ossie Brooks-James predicted the school would not be transformed overnight, and would maintain a “critical mass” of current students through 2010 and beyond.

“[Lyndale] won’t change next year, it won’t change the year after that and it won’t change three years from now,” Brooks-James said. “But it will change, and in 10 years it may look different than it does today.”

Brooks-James, too, said she was dedicated to maintaining the school’s culture during the transition. In the new families who joined the school from Lake Harriet, she has a dedicated group of neighborhood “ambassadors” to spread the word, she noted.

“That’s worth more than we could pay in advertising,” she said. “That’s a satisfied customer.”