New rules, new uncertainty

High school changes muddy next fall’s enrollment picture

The end of the calendar year is traditionally the time when Minneapolis Public Schools’ eighth-grade students and their families whittle down their high school options for next fall.

Shifting high school attendance boundaries, the result of a major district restructuring planned for fall 2010, meant many families with eighth graders still had questions about their options in early December, just two months ahead of the Jan. 31 deadline for high school request forms.

Current high school students also faced uncertainties. New, stricter student transportation rules meant an estimated 1,700 students could lose busing to their current high schools next fall.

That’s a big change from how the district used to operate. In recent years, Minneapolis teens could apply to any high school program in the city and, if they got into that program, get bused to school.

Depending on the choices both groups of students make over the next few months, the city’s seven public high schools could experience significant swings in enrollment next fall, district estimates showed. Washburn High School faces some of the greatest potential for change, Principal Carol Markham-Cousins said.

“Right now, my sense is that we have about … 40 percent of our kids who [live outside the transportation zone and] next year as 10th, 11th and 12th graders will be grandfathered into this school,” Markham-Cousins said. “So, they would have a place, but they wouldn’t have a ride.”

Finding a bus

One of those students is Kim Harmon’s son Terrence Goodson. A junior, Goodson lives in the Roosevelt High School attendance area in South Minneapolis, but has attended Washburn since the 9th grade.

That meant Goodson was around during Washburn’s 2008 fresh start when, after years of declining enrollment and lackluster academic performance, much of the school staff was replaced. Since then, widespread perception of a turnaround at the school has drawn in new families from surrounding neighborhoods.

After riding out the fresh start, participating in Washburn athletics and getting to know other students and staff, losing busing felt unfair to Goodson, his mother said.

Said Harmon: “He feels [like], ‘Mom, why would they make me move?’”

The district may have a solution.

Office of Family Engagement Executive Director Jackie Turner said the district was negotiating with Metro Transit to get free or reduced-price Go-To Card bus passes in the hands of out-of-zone high school students next fall. Negotiations were ongoing in early December, but a deal would give those students a public transportation option.

Tangletown resident Joan Bechtold said her son, a junior at South High School, would look into either riding the city bus or carpooling to complete his senior year at his out-of-zone high school.

Bechtold wrote in an e-mail: “Not all schools are alike, and my opinion is that it is more important to be at the school that is right for the student and helps them excel, rather than to close off options due to transportation.”

Uncertainty

Whether or not current out-of-zone students get Go-To Cards, they at least have a foothold in their current schools. If they can find a way to get to school, grandfathered students are at the top priority on the district’s placement list, ahead of siblings of current students and even students in the high schools’ new attendance areas.

But families with eighth graders are learning their children may not be able to follow older neighbors to high school.

Peggy Clark, a Barton Open School parent who sits on that school’s leadership council, said that school traditionally sent a number of students to the Open and Liberal Arts programs at South High School. Now, students living in neighborhoods near Barton will only get busing to the Open program, one of just a few citywide high school options remaining.

Clark said parents of about half of Barton’s 78 eighth grade students completed a survey about the high school choice process. The results reflected widespread confusion about next fall.

For instance: What if an out-of-zone student gets into the Open program but then decides South Liberal Arts is a better fit? Does that student end up at the bottom of the priority placement list?

“There’s just an awful lot of uncertainties, and once you put your kid in high school you want him to stay there,” Clark said. “You don’t want to be shifting around.”