Tears and frustration, but a schools plan to move forward

Eighteen months of planning for a smaller, more efficient district in 2010 came to a close when the School Board unanimously approved the Changing School Options plan Sept. 22.

That vote was preceded by an hour of passionate testimony and a flurry of last-minute amendments by board members. In the end, a few in the audience left in tears.

Some were parents from Armatage Community and Montessori School. The community school there is one of several programs slated to close at the end of this school year.

The district restructuring will close four school buildings, shrink the number of magnet programs and create three new transportation zones that determine school choices for families in different parts of the city. It reduces busing while giving every neighborhood a community school option and access to three magnet programs in their zone.

Changing School Options was estimated to save the district — struggling with ongoing deficits and shrinking enrollment —  $8.2 million a year. Amendments by the School Board cut the savings to $7.5 million a year.

One amendment saved Pratt Community School from closure. It was offered by Board Member Carla Bates, who argued the school was an essential link for Somali families in the Prospect Park neighborhood.

Board Member Pam Costain pushed through an exception to new, stricter high school attendance rules for Bryn Mawr, giving residents the choice between North and Southwest schools. Changing School Options put Bryn Mawr in a new North-Northeast transportation zone, but the amendment preserved their access to Southwest High School.

Several parents who testified before the vote urged the board to delay a decision on high schools altogether. They expressed concern about redrawn attendance boundaries and the balance of high school opportunities among transportation zones.

An amendment to defer high school changes failed on a four-to-three vote.

An amendment to keep the community school program at Armatage was voted down in front of a large crowd in the School Board chambers that included dozens of Armatage students and parents. That site will be all-Montessori next fall.

An amendment to postpone for one year the closing of Emerson Spanish Immersion Learning Center also failed to pass. As originally planned, the school will move intact to the site currently shared by Anwatin Middle School and Bryn Mawr Community School.

A day before the vote district administrators altered a decision to close Anwatin in 2010 to make room for Emerson. Instead, the program will be phased-out over two years.

Emerson will form a dual-campus program with Windom Spanish Dual Immersion School. Immersion students will have a middle school option at the new Emerson site.

The restructuring also ends two Southwest magnets: Kenwood Performing Arts Magnet and Parkview Montessori. It closes the Lehmann Center, an alternative school site in The Wedge.

In an effort to diversify two Southwest schools with large populations of white students, Changing School Options creates a voluntary integration program for Lake Harriet and Burroughs community schools.

When the vote had passed, School Board members acknowledged the pain and frustration felt by many in the district.

Still, Board Chairman Tom Madden said it was because tough decisions were avoided in the past that so much change had to happen so quickly. Just two years ago, the school board closed five North Side schools.

Madden said he was “hoping for five years” of stability.

Board Member Chris Stewart reminded his colleagues that Changing School Options was aimed at the district’s financial instability. Once on solid financial ground, it can tackle the real challenge: improving academics.

“Thought it feels like an end, it really isn’t,” Stewart said.

Superintendent Bill Green said he would focus on “healing” the school community in the months ahead.

The day after the vote, the district announced the formation of a transition team to help families through the changes. Leading the team is Executive Director of Family Engagement Jackie Turner.

Kenwood Community School parent Courtney Cushing Kiernat, who also served as co-chair of last year’s successful district referendum campaign, was named project manager.