A district in transition

As schools prepare for next fall’s changes, some fare better than others

ARMATAGE — The day after a Sept. 22 School Board vote to approve a major restructuring of Minneapolis Public Schools, the district announced the formation of a transition team to guide schools through the changes.

One month later, it was clear some school communities would navigate those changes more easily than others. Two school communities in one Southwest neighborhood found themselves on different ends of the spectrum.

Approval of the Changing School Options plan essentially split Armatage Community and Montessori School in two.

The community school program ends at the end of this school year, and many students are expected to join nearby Kenny Community School. The Montessori program will take over the entire Armatage building in fall 2010, but there were still unanswered questions in October about what that program would look like.

Both programs are on a list of “impacted schools” that will get special attention from the transition team led by Jackie Turner, executive director of Family Engagement, and Courtney Cushing Kiernat, co-chair of last year’s successful referendum campaign. Craig Vana, Emergency Management executive director, will oversee internal operations during the transition, such as the re-use of materials from closed programs.

By mid-October Turner and Cushing Kiernat had visited 22 of about 25 impacted schools, with plans to complete initial visits with all the schools by Nov. 1.

Individual transition plans for each school plot a path to next fall. They also outline efforts to market that school to the surrounding community.

“It’s not a ‘one-size-fits-all’ [plan] but really, what does that school need to make a successful transition?” Cushing Kiernat said.

Different challenges

The answer can vary quite a bit from school to school.

Kenny Principal Bill Gibbs expected it to be an easy transition for the Armatage families who join the school next fall. Armatage is only 12 blocks away, and the community school programs are similar.

“There’s just a huge overlap,” Gibbs said. “Many of the children know each other. Many of the families know each other. So it is going to be a smooth transition.”

Gibbs said about 35 Armatage families attended a recent Kenny open house, and many were already committed to joining Kenny next fall.

But the parents working out the details of Armatage Montessori’s transition plan face a much greater task.

Next fall, Armatage will offer the district’s only Montessori program for Southwest and some South neighborhoods.
As a magnet program, it can draw students from far outside its neighborhood boundaries.

District officials described high demand for Montessori programming when they announced the decision to split Armatage. Still, Montessori parents wondered what might happen if district predictions fell short.

The loss of community school students could significantly shrink Armatage. Fewer students bring in fewer district resources, which could mean cuts to staff and programs.

David Kern, a parent on the school’s transition team, said the unanswered questions make it difficult to sell the school to new families.

“We don’t know what we have to market, exactly,” Kern said.

Armatage Principal Joan Franks said the size of the Montessori program’s new attendance area — almost one-third of the city — would make for a strong school. As long as they get the word out.

“The sky is the limit for us,” Franks said. “It’s just our ability to vision and put that vision into practice.”

A better transition

Whether or not parents were getting the answers they needed early on in the transition process, the fact that that process was in place at all was seen as an improvement by School Board Member Jill Davis.

Davis had a child at Waite Park Community School when nearby Holland School was shuttered during a previous round of school closings. Without a transition team in place, there wasn’t a concerted effort to prepare students, families and staff for the changes, she said.

“It’s definitely much different than it was five years ago,” Davis said. “There just wasn’t much guidance.”

Now, the team led by Turner, Vana and Cushing Kiernat includes nearly 30 people from multiple district departments. Turner and Cushing Kiernat said they’d visited some impacted schools as many as four times by mid-October.

Still, Davis sympathized with parents, like those at Armatage Montessori, who were looking for more details about anticipated enrollment, staffing and programs for next fall.

“The sooner we can put that into place and make those decisions, the better it will be,” she said.

Tina Erazmus, whose two daughters attend the Armatage community school program but will move to Kenny next fall, said the success of the new Armatage Montessori was essential to the health of the neighborhood.

A member of the Armatage Neighborhood Association Board, Erazmus said that body would push the district maintain its focus on the Montessori program.

“We’re going to hold their feet to the fire that this is successful,” she said.